This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Weeds in the Garden - a Reflection Upon Matthew 13:24-30

Yesterday we attended Mass at St. Joseph Parish here in Hagerstown, MD.   The homily, which was an excellent message brought by Polish-born priest Fr. Tadeusz Mich, centered upon Jesus's parable in Matthew's Gospel about the wheat and tares.  While listening to Fr. Mich's homily, my own wheels got to turning a little, and what I realized is that there are many different things one can draw out of this well-known parable that may not have been thought of before, and that is why I wanted to share with you today my reflections on this passage.

The pedagogy Jesus used with His disciples was this whole parable device, and He also contextualized it by using something many of His hearers would be familiar with.  Palestine at the time of Jesus was a largely agrarian society, and although it was part of the Roman Empire, agriculture was the primary economic base.  Everyone, even many city-dwellers of the time, relied on agriculture for their living, so it was something Jesus used to teach the greater message of His kingdom as well.  Many of the parables have this imagery - sheep, goats, grain, seed, etc.   This particular passage is no different in that Jesus uses the same imagery to communicate a greater truth to those He taught.  However, though the agrarian symbolism is simple and may even be lost on today's technology-obsessed culture, it is still rich with meaning.  Over the years I personally have read this passage many times, and I have heard sermons, Sunday School lessons, and group Bible studies focus a lot on it as well.  But, it was only yesterday that I got some of the inspiration I am about to share, and to be honest, it actually has little to do with Fr. Mich's homily, although that is really what inspired my own reflections here.

First of all, for many of us in modern times, you may be asking the question - what on earth is a tare??  To simply put it, a tare is a type of weed, but more specifically it is also a species.  The specific type of plant that many scholars agree this refers to is the Lolium Temulentum, also known as the darnel/poison darnel or cockle.  It is found all around the globe, and is particularly bothersome for wheat farmers - it looks exactly like wheat, as a matter of fact, until it matures.  True wheat has a brown ear, whereas this tare has a black one, and that is the only way it can be differentiated.  There is also a chemical in the tare plant that, if consumed, can cause a serious intoxicating effect which can be fatal even to people, hence its problem - this is the case in particular if the tare plant in question is infected by a fungus called an endophyte,  The dangerous risk of the tare made it also taint wheat harvests where it was allowed to proliferate, and that could render both health and economic catastrophe upon a society (information taken from - accessed 24 July 2017).   Jesus would have known about this as well, and His wisdom expressed that just like these tares can destroy a wheat field, the wrong people who are in the Church can also destroy it likewise.  This is the classic and very appropriate lesson that one can take from this parable, but if you take the time to dig deeper, there are other applications as well.

The application I want to talk about now has to do with something that clicked within me as I was listening to Fr. Mich's homily yesterday, and it is something I had never thought of before and many people reading this would never have either.  Growing up as I did in West Virginia, and also very poor, I learned early about wildcrafting and foraging.  What I learned is that oftentimes many things that most people would dismiss as "weeds" may actually have nutritional or medicinal value, and therefore I learned the value of harvesting wild plants for food.  This also led me to understand that there are actually three classifications of weeds that grow in lawns and gardens:

1.  Weeds which are simply nuisance but otherwise harmless - These include some things we see in our yards which are a pain in the butt to get rid of, such as crabgrass.  Crabgrass is not edible, but it also is not harmful or toxic.

2.  Weeds which are a nuisance and can be harmful - These are things, such as varieties of toadstool, that if consumed by animals or people can kill.  If a person has small children or pets they let outside frequently, these plants must not be accessible to them.

3.   Weeds that have intrinsic nutritional value or can be healing - These are plants, such as dandelions, puffball mushrooms, and plantains (not the green banana-looking fruits that are part of Hispanic cuisine, but a small ground plant with large leaves common in many yards in the northeast) are actually edible and may even have nutritional benefits.  

If I were to take my experience with wildcrafting and apply it to the parable, something very interesting comes to light.  While weeds of any sort can be pesky and even dangerous, not all weeds are, and some can be utilized in other ways.   There are those people in our churches - "tares" - who may not have committed to the faith yet, but they are open, and instead of being like crabgrass they actually could benefit the community if they were evangelized properly.  That illustrates the salvation of Jesus very concisely - a weed that can be redeemed and turned into something good.  In the strictest sense, what this would mean is that not everyone in the harvest may be "wheat" - some may be dandelions, some wild onions, some plantains, but each has value to harvest.  Jesus can do that with anyone, and that is what supernatural grace is all about - taking something of nature, and then healing, elevating, and perfecting it to something good.  Jesus did die for all - including the "weeds" - and therefore all He waits for is for us to accept what He has extended to us as a free gift.  If a weed does that, it can be transformed from a dangerous tare to a delicious plate of dandelion greens.  This, therefore, is the insight I gained from this passage.

Now, I know I may have done quite a bit of eisegesis on this passage, but that is OK - in the context of the message, it actually works, and it also is a beautiful illustration of how Christ loves all and can save anyone.  A "redeemed weed" is of more value to him than a blighted "wheat," as it must be remembered that wheat or other grain that has blight or disease is not fit for consumption either and has to be destroyed.  In the Church today, there are cases of blight and smut over many of the people who sit in pews - an otherwise faithful churchgoer may, for instance, have involvement in a Masonic lodge, which is a great risk to one's salvation in itself.  Masonry is one of those "blights."  Others may have issues with listening to or believing heresy - many professing Christians, for instance, are caught up in the lie of evolution, and actually believe that they evolved over billions of years from goo, to the zoo, to the day of me and you.  This too is a type of blight.  To go back to my West Virginia roots, let's talk about corn a little.  In the summers, it was a great thing to harvest and roast fresh corn, and part of the fun of doing that was husking the corn.  Sometimes, though, when you would be husking an ear of corn, you would see a silverish-grey mass on the ear which would be a type of fungus we called smut.  You had two options with the discovery of smut - either you could discard the whole ear of corn, or you would trim away the bad parts of the ear infected with the smut and salvage the rest.  God has to do that with us on occasion too, doesn't he?  We accumulate bad habits and behavior which acts like a type of "smut" on our spirits, and the Holy Spirit by sanctifying grace has to remove that junk.  What is salvaged may be less, but it is redeemable.   Even some vices such as pornography and filthy language are called "smut" in everyday slang, which also goes back to this too.  We must always "weed our garden" to clean out impurities within ourselves as the result of supernatural grace working in us through the Holy Spirit, and in reality that was the angle Fr. Mich's homily went with yesterday.  As I have said, this passage truly has a lot of meaning on many levels, and if you can get a fresh inspiration from it like this, then it shows that you have a sincere love for the things of God and He can show you His truth.

That was really the major insight I wanted to make today on this passage, although many others are equally applicable - it can also be read and understood as apostasy in the Church as a whole, or it can even be on a personal level in that "tares" often grow in our own spiritual life that we need to remove by prayer and repentance.  All of these interpretations are valid and true at the same time.  And, it also goes to prove that the wisdom Jesus gave to those who had the privilege of hearing Him in person was so rich and insightful that it still touches people centuries after the actual parable was told itself.  To summarize it all like this however, a "tare" is anything that deters the Church or its members from the central mission of our faith, which is the path to Jesus Himself through the Cross.  All things point to Jesus, and He is to be the center of all our doctrine, all of our spiritual expression, and even of our very lives as Christians.  Anything that inhibits that Christocentric focus is indeed a tare, and it can cause an idolatry that will have as its end for us destruction.  May we always "weed our gardens" for sure, but in our churches, let us also remember that what may be seen as a "weed" because it doesn't look like "wheat" may be something valuable - this is why we extend Christ's love and grace to all who enter His house, but we also must make sure they know that the salvation He offers is only found in seeking Him above all else.  Take care until next time.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review of Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, "Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest"

Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

The "Empty Nest Syndrome" - many get it, and many also have difficulties dealing with it.  After having a child in the house for 18-plus years, it is quite an adjustment when one's son or daughter launches out into the big, bad, and unknown world.  Parents naturally worry about their kids, as well as missing their presence around the house.  This book, which I received as a review copy from the publisher, is a little different than the more weighty theological topics I normally review, but it is nonetheless an essential topic to address.  As is my practice when doing a review like this, I want to first know a little something about the authors as well as some of the sources they used to research their own material, so we'll start there.

Barbara Rainey, the first co-author of the book, was a founder along with her husband Dennis of a ministry called FamilyLife, which is a ministry that deals with deepening the marriage relationship. One of the ways they carry out their vocation in this ministry is with something called Weekends to Remember, a program in which retreats are provided for couples to enrich their own marriage relationships.   They do have a website ( that provides more detailed information about what they do.  The other co-author, Susan Yates, is a popular Evangelical Christian speaker at marriage and parenting conferences and also has authored several other books.  She likewise has her own website ( that provides more information on what she does.  On the outset, these ladies provide a valuable service, as catechesis on the importance of the marriage covenant is a vital thing not only for the Evangelical audiences their material is geared to, but also to traditionalist and conservative Catholic audiences as well that share many of the same convictions.  However, the "proof in the pudding" is what sources they used for their writing, and I want to examine that next before I deal with the content of the book itself.

In looking at the "Notes" section in the back of the book, it appears that the authors use pretty standard marriage and family resources, both from psychological and from standard Evangelical Christian sources, which for me makes them pretty "safe."  It is important to examine the material that an author (even Christian authors) draws from these days, as unfortunately there are a lot of things out there that can be deceptive,  However, I do not see anything questionable in their source material, so it is now time to look at the book itself.

The chapters of the book deal with some practical issues that many people at some point face in regards to family relationships, and they relate specifically to the "empty nest" situation - the authors include chapters on loneliness, disappointment, how to relate to one's spouse, how to relate to adult children after they leave home and start families of their own, and how to deal with extended families, as well as a chapter I want to look at in more detail here shortly entitled "What Do I Do With Me?"  Other chapters in the second section deal with the reality of "moving forward," which entails chapters on learning how to "take a break," "celebrate," discovering new purpose in life, and finding ways to impact the world around oneself.  A series of inventories and exercises are also provided in the appendices which are designed to help the reader implement the information given in such a way as to make their own life more meaningful.  It is obvious that this book is geared toward a female audience, which makes it somewhat weird for me reading it, but at the same time there are some general things that can apply to either men or women, and therefore there are valuable and practical insights that can be taken away from the book by anyone who reads it.  There are a couple of chapters I want to focus more on now, and at this point I will begin to examine in detail two chapters of the book that piqued my own interest.

The first chapter I want to examine more closely is Chapter 8, which is entitled "What Do I Do With Me?"  The chapter begins on page 131, and it opens with a series of interesting questions - "What have I become? Does anyone need me? What is my purpose now that my kids are gone? How do I know what to do next? What am I good at? Where do I start?"   The author talks about dealing with a post-40ish "identity milestone," to use her term,  and the scenario is when the initial shock of the "empty nest" hits a person.  At that point, one is faced with identity questions about oneself, and the questions posed at the beginning of the chapter have a lot to do with this.  One faces a feeling of being lost, wandering, and it is a normative and healthy reaction.  One statement that stands out in regard to the female audience this book is addressing is on page 132 - "We were made for more than motherhood."  I could say, as a man, that the same is also true - men are more than fathers.  Another very vital point at the end of the same page is the importance of defining our identity in relation to God and His purposes for one's life, and that He is in control of our destiny.  Although this can be viewed by some as an Evangelical fix-all answer, it nonetheless is a truth - the challenge for the reader is to come to terms with it and begin to utilize it.  The authors themselves rightly acknowledge on page 133 that the task of keeping our "affections" aligned properly with God's will is a difficult task, and you don't necessarily have to be a mother of adult children to understand that.  Each of the authors then gives a personal testimony on pages 134-136 of their own struggles, and this is actually a masterful device in that it shows the reader (especially a reader who may be dealing with a similar situation) that these are not mere Evangelical platitudes, but indeed the authors themselves faced these issues as well.  It is always good when a writer can open up with their own experience to connect to the reader, in that it shows the reader that someone else has blazed the "unknown trail" already, and it gives a path in the wilderness so to speak.  That is an endearing strength of a book like this also.  On pages 136 through 138, the authors have a subsection of the chapter entitled "Second Chances."  In this section, what I got out of it personally is that oftentimes we are given a "second chance" to detour back to the original path we should have been on in the first place, and the "empty nest" period is a good time to seek that road out.  It is a veering off the original course that makes the questions that were stated at the beginning of the chapter relevant to us as individuals, and this time is a perfect season to explore those questions and take them to heart.  Once we are on the path, as noted on page 138, the answers reveal themselves to us, but they also have a starting place, and that is God.  This is pretty common-sense stuff which anyone can relate to, although often it sounds more easy in retrospection than it does at the time the situation is being faced.  At the end of the chapter, a section encouraging prayer for direction is provided, including sample prayers that can be prayed as well as guidelines for writing one's own prayer,  At the end of the chapter, a form is also provided for the reader to write out their own story.  Again, this is very practical material, and it also is challenging.  Sometimes the best and most effective advice comes from someone who can write from practical experience rather than the extensive tomes of verbose theologians and Bible scholars, and this book is just that - a practical series of guidelines of two ladies who themselves have experienced what they talk about.

I now want to deal more in-depth with Chapter 12, which is entitled "Changing Your World," and begins on page 199.  "Changing the world" is a broad term which can have a lot of meanings, and the essence of reading this chapter is to ascertain what the authors are talking about.  On page 200, an important point is made when the authors affirm that changing the world doesn't necessarily entail traveling the world.  Excellent point to start, but what do they mean by all that?  The authors give a variety of things - very service-oriented vocations such as fostering children, caring for the elderly, etc. - as one interpretation of what it means to "change the world."  This hearkens back to the questions in Chapter 8, in that God's will and direction is the obvious starting place for one's own quest to "change the world."  If I were to add anything personally to this chapter, I think it would be important to mention that the key to "changing the world" on a personal level is assessment of what one has to work with.  Many of us, of course, have gifts, talents, and skills that provide the raw material of some great endeavor, but we also need to learn how to refine and use those too.  I don't think the authors would have an argument with that idea as well, but maybe they were under the assumption that this aspect was implied - in the case of my reading of the text, it certainly was.  I was also drawn to the end of the chapter as well, beginning on page 123 with a section entitled "Take the Next Step."  These sections seem to be found at the end of many of the chapters, and in essence the authors seem to be providing a step-by-step process for the reader to implement what they are writing about.  The idea of a personal mission statement is a good one actually, and it is also challenging - fortunately, the authors provide a good template based on material from Chapter 11 to work with, and here is where they deal with personal application of assessing one's assets, documenting them, and then determine where using them would be most worth the investment of time and energy.  A series of traits and themes worth incorporating into such a statement are also included - attitude, service of others, and a section called "Finishing Well" which focuses on proper stewardship of health, vibrancy, being well-read, and both living and dying with dignity ("living well" and "dying well").  From a Catholic perspective, it is an excellent incorporation of eschatological emphasis on a personal level.  Again, this doesn't have to be just utilized by female "empty nesters" either, as anyone in any situation (I would add even negative situations, such as losing a job or having one's spouse pass away) can do something with this material, as it is actually some excellent guidance.  If I were to have added one thing though, I would also recommend journaling, as you can release so much and also sort out a lot of issues by doing that as well.

Although it could be argued that the "self-help" aspect of this book makes it one among many that one can buy for a dime a dozen at any Goodwill store, it is also a very practical and Christian-based program for those going through similar situations, and thus it can be a valuable resource.  It also may prove valuable to Christian counselors and "life coaches" as well, not to mention it can be a handy resource for the clergy.  Personal experience is sometimes a master teacher, and the ladies who authored this book exemplify it well.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Anglican Catechesis - Addressing and Correcting Deficiencies

For the past four years, I have been pursuing a Master's degree in Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in the course of those studies I have learned a lot. However, some of what I have learned has also been disturbing when I look at my own church, which is Anglican - catechesis is undiscovered territory for many Anglican parishes in our tradition, and it is a scary thing when one really thinks about it. I want to briefly deal with this situation here, and share some observations.

If one looks at traditional Anglican catechesis, it is largely confined to about four pages in the back of the Book of Common Prayer (if you are following this, it is on pages 577-583). As a result, there are a lot of faithful attenders in our Masses who are deficient in even basic doctrine, and this may have contributed to the decline as well of the Episcopal Church, the mainline body which many traditional Anglicans trace their roots back to (most to a schism that happened in 1977 in St. Louis, when my own communion, the Anglican Catholic Church, and many others were formed and constituted what is called the "Continuing Anglican" movement). A lack of solid catechesis can be detrimental to a Church, and although many will affirm orthodoxy, many don't know what they are affirming. By contrast, the Roman Catholics have the 1500+ page Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is so thorough and even cross-referenced that it would be impossible not to understand it. The Eastern Churches likewise have extensive catechisms, notably one called The Rudder, and both the Roman and Eastern Churches have strict procedures for training their catechists to teach effectively. A guiding document in the Roman Church for this is what is known as the General Directory for Catechesis, which I have almost had to memorize during my graduate program at Steubenville, and it is a valuable resource. One statement from the General Directory (hereafter called GDC) that is very applicable to the situation of catechesis in our traditional Anglican churches is this - in GDC 2, this paragraph is noted:

The course of catechesis during this same period has been characterized everywhere by generous dedication, worthy initiatives and by positive results for the education and growth in the faith of children, young people and adults. At the same time, however, there have been crises, doctrinal inadequacies, influences from the evolution of global culture and ecclesial questions derived from outside the field of catechesis which have often impoverished its quality.
( - accessed 6/12/2017)

Note the last sentence in that paragraph - doctrinal inadequacies, influences from the evolution of global culture, and ecclesial questions derived from outside the field of catechesis that have impoverished its quality. Secularization and the via moderna have had their influence, even on die-hard traditionalists at times, but what have been some things that have affected the quality of traditional Anglican catechesis in a negative way? I want to note a few of those here:

1. Lack of adequate instructional time - the average parish in one of our dioceses limits Sunday School instruction, Bible study, and catechesis to a mere 30 minutes before or after Mass, and that is insufficient to even cover the material properly.

2. A general indifference on the part of parishioners - many Anglican parishioners are basically good people, and they display a generosity that exemplifies Christian charity beautifully. However, when it comes to commitment to Bible study or catechesis (especially for adults), many of the people who should be there are not, and that can be very discouraging for a priest or a catechist.

3. Influences of Freemasonry and other outside things - an alarming number of Anglicans are involved in Masonic lodges, they consult horoscopes, and many also get faulty theology from sources like the History Channel. Although again I must stress that personally many of these people are basically decent individuals and do these things in ignorance, the point is that if they had proper catechesis to begin with, they wouldn't be allowing these things to influence them. Many of our bishops know the dangers of Freemasonry, and they have a sort of "discourage but tolerate" position, which actually I cannot fault them for - some of this stuff is so deeply embedded in the older generations that it would be impossible to exorcise it, so I believe the bishops in their wisdom are just letting those influences sort of die off. However, we must properly catechize the younger generation.

4. General inconsistency on rubrics, etc. - Traditional Anglicans (especially vestry members, older lay readers, and sacristans) are often sticklers for getting everything "just right" during our Masses, and they can be super-critical and unforgiving to someone "learning the ropes." I have dealt with more than my fair share of those, and honestly, they are a royal pain in the keister! The inconsistency though with many of these same individuals lies in the way they are casual about some things they should be taking seriously, such as correct pronunciation of the names and words in the Epistle readings on Sundays - I cringe every time I hear a lay reader butcher even the simplest of Biblical words, but it happens all too frequently. Part of proper catechesis is educating about reverence for God's Holy Word, which is infallible, inerrant, and the record of the divine kerygma. We should, as lay readers, take pride in our task of reading the Holy Word of God, and do so with reverence and try to read it properly! That is why another important aspect of catechesis is also special classes for lay readers, acolytes, sacristans, and others who participate in the Mass. It would save a lot of problems at the Mass itself.

It is also worth noting that as Anglicans, we are not exclusive - we are first Catholic rather than merely "Anglican," and our liturgy, theology, and spirituality need to be defined in the context of the wider Church as a whole. The late Fr. Louis Tarsitano, in his pioneering catechetical text An Outline of the Anglican Life (Houston: Classical Anglican Press, 1994) states "Anglicanism is not a pastiche of private or borrowed customs," and "The Anglican Church does not own the middle way (Via Media - my add) to Christ; but we maintain it for his honor and for the sake of salvation." (Tarsitano, p. 1). Our own Archbishop Haverland likewise says that "Anglican Catholics, I think, are right not to explain the unity of the Church in a manner that excludes either the Romans or Easterners. How the essential unity of the Church is maintained despite apparent disunity is a mystery and mercy of God." (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice. Athens, GA: Anglican Parishes Association, 2011. p. 140). Actually Aquinas explained this "unity in disunity" perfectly when he emphasizes the reality of supernatural grace in the Summa and other texts. In essence, I would personally agree with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Christophe Schonborn, whose notable phrase "Finis ominum Ecclesia (The Church is the goal of all things)," sums up the role of the Church (the subject of a future article, and also one of my comprehensive exam questions for my Master's program!) - within the Church is the fullness of salvation, and since the Church is the custodian of that precious gift, it's custodians must take that mandate seriously in both evangelization and catechesis (which do go hand-in-hand). In Cardinal Schonborn's book, Loving the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), he makes the case for this very thing when he expounds upon the kerygma as being culminated in the Church (more on that in another article as well) but also specifically in the person of Christ. He describes the Church specifically as the "inner ground" of God's plan of creation (Schonborn, p. 21). This mystical communion encompasses all who are part of the Church, and that includes the Anglican Catholic tradition - we are part, but not all, in other words. The same applies to our Roman and Eastern brethren, as well in varying degrees to devout and faithful Protestants who are part of and participants in the whole Church by embracing orthodoxy. This higher but also inclusive view of the Church is the heart of Anglican understanding of ecclesiology. That being said, our catechesis needs to reflect that, and we can benefit greatly from the collective wisdom of the whole Church, which is one reason why I reference the GDC, a Roman Catholic document, here. There are three things of note that the GDC says therefore which should be the goal of catechesis, and this is where our discussion continues.

In GDC 27, the internal life of the Church and its dependence upon sound catechesis is discussed at length, and what it says is that certain enrichments will be evident, including the following:

1. Liturgical life properly and profoundly understood as the source and summit of ecclesial life.

2. A universal call to holiness and a greater commitment to mutual service and charity (meaning catholicity).

3. Sacred Scripture is savoured, reverenced, and meditated upon more intensely - especially by lay and clerical leaders!

4. The resulting spiritual renewal will intensify the evangelistic mission of the Church.

Aha! #4 affirms that proper catechesis will bear evangelistic fruit! They are intimately connected, in other words. This is integral to the life of the Church, as it is her means of procreation. That being said, we often lack at times in our Anglican parishes because while we have a commendable (albeit misguided!) commitment to doing things "the way we have always done them," at the same time there are some things that need to go - not liturgically or theologically, but rather attitude. The complacency of so many of our laity regarding discipleship - their Bibles gather dust while the coffeepots in the parish hall are always perculating....hmmm, better stop before a sacred cow becomes a casualty, right?? - is a scandal. We do so many other things so well - as mentioned, one of the strengths of our local parishes is generosity - Anglicans help each other when one experiences difficulty, and on that aspect of charity our people are the best. My wife and I owe much to the kindness and generosity of many of our faithful fellow parishioners, who have indeed been a tremendous blessing to us. Now, imagine if that charitable aspect of our faith were augmented with an equal love of Scripture and a hunger for learning the faith and also reaching out to others in evangelization - we would be truly the Church God intended. That is where proper catechesis needs to be taken more seriously. Another aspect of this as well is knowing why we pray and say things in our liturgy, as catechesis is based primarily on "Four Pillars," which are all incorporated into our traditional Anglican Mass - the Lord's Prayer, the Decalogue, the Creeds of the Church, and the Sacraments themselves. Ultimately, all four of those are what are called Christocentric - all of them point us to Jesus ultimately. A true catechetical program would be centered first and foremost around those four things, and every other aspect of study would incorporate those and point us back to their Source, which is Jesus Christ Himself. Thanks be to God for great instructors at Franciscan University who taught me the importance of this, and now it is time our Anglican tradition embraces them as well, as our whole reason for existence falls upon them, and ultimately Jesus Christ Himself.

The bottom line of an effective catechesis is to make our people come to love Jesus and know Him, and too many of our people don't - they "go through motions" and know all the correct rubrics, etc., but they don't know Him. A necessity for re-evangelization of our people is vital to our survival as a Church, and it starts with encouraging proper catechesis. Until we do, we face a crisis of faith - many will proclaim it, but many also won't truly have it within themselves. Religion and relationship are both integral to the Christian life, and in order to have them the mysteries of faith must be taught and also encouraged to be lived out. If we start doing that, we will be a force to be reckoned with as a communion. God bless until next time.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Review of Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, "Answering the Toughest Questions About Heaven and Hell"

Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, Answering the Toughest Questions About Heaven and Hell.  Minneapolis, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

In studying fundamental theology, one of the main aspects is what is called Eschatology, meaning the study of the "Last Things."   Although much about this subject often emphasizes prophetic and futuristic events, that is only a small fraction of how the Church has historically taught on the subject, as what the Church understands as Eschatology can be condensed down to what is called "the Four Last Things" - death, judgment, heaven, and hell.  This particular book by Bickel and Jantz deals with the latter two, as anagogically they sum up the final destinations of all of us.  The book addresses some important questions, and thus is why I chose to review it.  However, again, I want to also look at who the authors are, as well as what source material they used, before delving into the content of the book itself.

Bruce Bickel is an attorney in Fresno, CA, and he has collaborated on other books with Stan Jantz, who in turn is a writer and speaker living in Orange County, CA, and he is the CEO of something called, which serves as sort of a forum for other writers on a variety of topics.  Together, according to that website, Bickel and Jantz have co-authored over 50 books.  A lot of background material is lacking on them when doing an online search, so this is essentially all I could find out about them. 

Regarding the source material they used for the book, I notice an odd mix of both standard Evangelical literature as well as some "Emerging Church" writers such as Douglas Moo, Rob Bell, Dallas Willard, and Scott McKnight.  Utilizing such source material regarding such a fundamental topic raises concerns, especially the references to Rob Bell who espouses some heretical universalist soteriology.  That is why I am also going to be focusing attention on a couple of chapters in particular.

Beginning with Chapter 1, the basic question of the existence of an afterlife is addressed.  On page 12, the authors affirm the basic Christian doctrine of life after death, which so far is good.  Further down the page, an important statement is made regarding fundamental eschatology - "Be it heaven or hell, Christians claim everybody's headed somewhere."   The authors then begin to tackle the question of if the Christian position is the only way to see a post-death future, and in subsequent pages they present a sort of brief overview of the positions of other religious traditions on that topic.  They correctly note that 99 percent of the world's population ascribe to some view on an afterlife, but they also say this doesn't solve the issue of whether it is a reality or not.   Of the world's major religions, the authors on pages 14-16 discuss the views of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, and on pages 16-18 the perspective from science is addressed.  It must be noted here that neither of the authors would be what would be considered "Young-Earth" Creationists - their frequent references of Hugh Ross (a leading proponent of the "Old-Earth" view) permeate the discussion, as well as their stating of "millions of years" on page 13.  However, they do present an intriguing discussion of the scientific issue, and a few things are worth noting.   First, the demand for physical proof (empirical evidence) at times permeates man's desire for understanding if there is an afterlife, but one thing the authors lack in that discussion is the role of metaphysics - there are some things that are true but not tangible, in other words, and tangibility does not necessarily make a criteria for truth.  Beginning then on page 17 and going into page 18, the authors discuss first of all the relation of biology to the afterlife.  The authors admit at the end of the first paragraph in this section that self-awareness cannot be explained - emotions, feelings, and other aspects of personality, for instance, are not tangible, but they are real.  As they note in the second paragraph, the qualities of the mind and body are indeed different, and that death to the body might not necessarily mean death of the mind - this is both Aristotelian and Thomistic as far as conclusions go, and again without specifically saying it the authors are making a valid distinction between biology and metaphysical reality.  Quoting Dinesh D'Souza, they make an equally astute observation on page 18 as they affirm that consciousness indeed operates often outside the physical laws of nature (the realms of the metaphysical, in other words) and that consciousness is independent of the body - the intersection of the physical and metaphysical, the authors note on page 19, is teleology, which they define as the study of why things are.  The teleological argument discussed, as noted in the last sentence of the section on page 20, is that this doesn't establish scientific proof necessarily for an afterlife, but it opens the possibility.  To put it in philosophical terms, where physics leaves off, metaphysics fills in. However, in the next section discussing physics specifically, the authors note that there are now possible physical possibilities for life after death, including a multidimensional universe, and also the existence of multiverses (ala Michio Kaku?) and alternate universes, and although I would differ with them somewhat for even entertaining that, they make a good point on page 21 by noting that at times reality can be stranger than science fiction and more bizarre than the most creative of wild imaginations.  That means the possibility of a scientific basis for life after death (for more on that, I would recommend Frank Tipler's The Physics of Christianity). However, as noted on pages 21 and following, Christians (and indeed humanity in general) are people of the heart as well, and there are two observations the authors note that point to the reality of life after death.  One, on pages 21-23, is what they term "cultural obsession."   This has to do with man's obsession with finding his own immortality, and it has led to some extremes that have pushed us to seeking ways to cheat death - they note that medicine in general, age-defying products in particular, cosmetic (plastic) surgery, and an emphasis on the young at the expense of the old.  To this, I would also add more sinister movements of eugenics, transhumanism, and other attempts to purge humanity of apparent weakness in order to create a more perfect specimen of the species that would ensure some degree of immortality.  A desire to live forever is something that is inherent to human nature, as the authors accurately state on page 23, but the section lacks in that it doesn't deal with the root issue as found in Genesis 3 - why we lost our immortality in the first place.  Sin and death are consequences of the Fall, and man deteriorates and dies because sin and death came in at the Fall.  Having affinities with a more "Old-Earth" position however, the authors cannot in reality make the connection to reconcile that reality with their view, and that is where the book is weak on this topic.  The redemption though is in the following section, as the authors begin a sort of Bible study on the issue of life after death, and they conclude the chapter with an affirmation of the orthodox Christian position that life after death is a cosmic reality.  

The next chapter I want to look at a little more closely is Chapter 5, which deals with the question "Do all roads lead to heaven?"  The term "roads," as clarified by the authors on page 66, is synonymous in this context with other religious traditions besides Christianity, and it is an important topic to address.  On page 67, there is something I wanted to explore closely, in that there can be potential confusion on the part of the reader with where the authors stand on this subject.  The paragraph of focus opens with this statement - "In past generations, becoming a Christian was like joining an exclusive club.  Only those who believed in and followed the club rules could be members, and only the members (those who were 'saved') were going to heaven.  Unfortunately, this way of believing often led to a smugness on the part of the members."   Further in the next paragraph, it follows with this:  "Thankfully, such a distorted view of what it means to be a Christian - Tim Keller accurately calls it 'deadly triumphalism' - has fallen out of favor with Christians today."  There are many, many potential problems with these statements that need to be addressed.  First, let us look at who this Tim Keller guy is.  Tim Keller is described in a Wikipedia article ( - accessed 6/2/2017) as being a Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and apologist.  He also seems to be identified with the "Emerging Church" movement, and identifies his theology as not "conservative" or "Evangelical" but rather by the ambiguous moniker "orthodox" - however, what does he mean by "orthodox?"  Examining his theological position, he has a rather iconoclastic view of "traditional religion," saying that salvation is substitutionary, and he also is quite ambiguous regarding the Creation/evolution discussion.  Although also pro-traditional marriage and pro-life, he also is a cultural conformist in many areas, which may be problematic for his more traditional positions.   His soteriology is eerily similar to "Emerging Church" gurus Rob Bell and Brian McLaren in that he dismisses the traditional view of salvation (based on passages such as John 14:6 and Romans 5) in favor of a broader approach.  The authors therefore would be at odds with a more sacramental theological position that an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist like myself would hold, in that the inerrant truths of Scripture point all to Christ, but it is also up to the individual to accept or reject Christ, as well as accepting the consequences of said choice.   Rather than being Time Keller's "deadly triumphalism," this is the prevalent view of the Church as taught throughout the centuries, and the authors and Keller had best exercise caution at thinking they know more than Jesus, the Apostles, and the many great Fathers and Doctors of the Church through the ages.  A further red flag pops up on pages 67-68, as the authors reference a heretical text by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins that promotes universalism - although the authors acknowledge problems with Bell's text on page 68, it is still problematic that they are still noting in a negative light the idea of exclusivity, and more clarification is needed.  While false triumphalism is indeed an error as well, the authors need to exercise more caution so as not to confuse the fact that Jesus is the only way to salvation with the smug attitudes of the triumphalist - the true Christian is not smug about the eternal damnation of others, nor does he or she arbitrate based on the "likes" and "dislikes" of individuals who is "saved" and who is not - to do that is to do the Holy Spirit's job, and that is not possible.  There are those who do seek answers, like the example of Ari the book uses, but that doesn't mean we just extend salvation to them either just because they are "sincere" - no, we witness Christ to them, and that is the way they will find the answers they seek.  I am actually quite relieved though when I read on page 69 the following statement - after a discussion about the one true road to God, they conclude that section by saying "We know, this is harsh.  But it's what the Bible says in pretty much the same way:  ' There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death' (Proverbs 14:2)."  It is perfectly fine to point out the wrong way, but it is also equally important to point out the correct path too, and that is John 14:6 - "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man cometh unto the Father except through Me."  Fortunately for the authors, they devote pages 70-72 to the fact that Jesus is an exclusive way to salvation, and thankfully they rely on referencing a sound Roman Catholic apologist, Peter Kreeft, to substantiate their position.  Beginning on page 73, they also affirm that no man-made road reaches heaven, and this is also consistent with both Scripture and the teaching of the Church.  However, the final section of the chapter, pages 74-79, deals with another aspect of the question - there may only be one way to heaven, but are there more ways to Jesus Himself?  Interesting question that merits a discussion of its own, which follows.

The authors open this section with an important question they quote from Kreeft on page 74 - what subjective relationship must one have with Jesus in order to be on the right way?  Is it a simple "prayer of the heart," in other words, or is it a systematic approach?  How much knowledge does one have to have about Jesus to be "saved?"   I will take it one further on that last question - what does it mean to "be saved?"   This term salvation means different things to different Christian traditions - to Evangelicals, it is a one-time event synonymous with conversion, whereas with more Catholic traditions it is a lifestyle that is lived out after conversion.  The authors make an important point on page 76 that provides an answer to this dilemma - salvation by faith in Jesus is not as straightforward or formulaic as we think?  Hmmm...odd statement coming from a couple of Evangelical Protestant authors, but not so odd when thought in the context of the historic Church.  The authors deal with some interesting Evangelical cliches that I myself often questioned in my days as an Evangelical many years ago - questions such as what does it mean to "ask Jesus into your heart," or "accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior."  Is  it merely a profession, or is there something more to it?   I prefer the Catholic understanding personally of conversion and salvation - they constitute a mystery of faith that cannot be articulated, but you know something real has happened.  It seems - and I could be wrong - that the authors are sort of coming to that conclusion as well.

So, the base question - does the exclusivity of believing in Jesus marginalize others?  On pages 76-77 the authors tackle that question by noting that Christians first don't have a monopoly on truth - that is actually correct, and also Thomistic, as natural law even applies outside the Church as well.  Also, although Jesus is the only, true way of salvation, this in no way implies marginalization - John 3:16 affirms that Jesus died for all men out of great love, and that it is up to the person as an individual to choose to follow Him or not; that choice, as a gift of free will, is to be respected but also lamented if it is a wrong choice.  The final point they make in that section is that it is people rather than truth itself that marginalizes - people who are well-meaning but misguided can let their convictions create walls that generate marginalization, in other words.  The convictions themselves are not necessarily evil, but the attitude with which the conviction is carried out may be the marginalizing factor.  Those are actually some good points.  In the following section - pages 77-78 - the authors bring home the point by suggesting that the way to Jesus is exclusively one, but its availability is to all.  This is a fair and orthodox way of stating it.  

On pages 78-79, the authors tackle the question of why people are reluctant to follow Jesus, and some obvious things is that it is an emotional decision rather than an intellectual one, and this therefore means one's choice is based on how they "feel" about it.  However, they also discuss the role of faith, and although they don't explicitly state it, they do correctly conclude that faith is not based on feelings, but often transcends them.  Also, when one relies on reason alone without faith, one is subject to only empirical data, and faith oftentimes transcends the empirical.  If I may add to this, faith is transformative, and as a response to supernatural grace, it aids in making our minds and hearts open to being healed, elevated, and perfected by that same supernatural grace, and in essence we see the "bigger picture" that mere empirical data or emotional response cannot provide.  On that note, the chapter ends on a fairly orthodox note that would elicit little argument from historic Church teaching.

The rest of the book deals with other specifics - hell, what happens at the moment of death, whether animals go to heaven, etc.  However, these two pivotal chapters set the stage for the rest of the book, in that they address the fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to move forward.  In that regard, perhaps Chapters 1 and 5 should have been together, and the rest of the book following, but the flow of the text does bring everything together.  There is much to concur with in Bickel's and Jantz's text, but there are also concerns - the reliance on "Emerging Church" writers such as Tim Keller and Scott McKnight, for instance, as well as some rather normative Evangelical convictions that would be at variance with more traditional Patristic and Catholic viewpoints.  However the text is not without its merit, and it does provide some good material for pastors, catechists, and others when these questions inevitably will arise.  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Eric J. Bargerhuff, "The Most Misused Stories in the Bible"

Bargerhuff, Eric J.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

I am doing a new thing with my blog, as I am going to be reviewing new books on a monthly basis as part of a program I am participating in for a publisher.   The other day, I was inundated with three packages in my Martinsburg, WV, P.O. box which we haven't checked in some time, and upon checking the box one of the books I had received was this one.   Now, it is important that as I review a book, I know a couple of things.  First, I want to know something about the author, as that is vital to understanding more of what I will be reading.  Secondly, I want to also check out his source material to make sure it isn't referencing off-the-wall junk in the book - referencing a deviant source doesn't necessarily invalidate the book itself, as oftentimes the source may be cited critically in order to show how the author differs with it, and that I can respect.  Therefore, I want to start there first.

Eric Bargerhuff is, as the back cover of this book notes, a professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of Florida.  He received his own degrees at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, including the Ph.D. he possesses, which would place him squarely within the Protestant Evangelical tradition.  He has written another similarly-titled book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, and that will be worth examining more at some point as well.  I also checked out his Trinity College profile (, accessed 5/27/2017) and it notes that he lives in Trinity, FL, which is a small community between New Port Richey and Zephyrhills just off SR 54.  I know that area well, as we used to attend Mass at a Maronite parish that met out there, and we also lived about an hour south of there for several years.  Trinity College is itself a small school located in the same area, and what puzzles me is what denominational affilliation (if any) that Trinity and Dr. Bargerhuff have, as he has 20 years of pastoral experience as well.  In reading the book thoroughly, I will understand better where is position is and it may reveal his theological tradition within Evangelicalism.

As for source material he references, a careful perusal through his footnotes reveals that he relies on some fairly orthodox Evangelical sources for his material, citing frequently for instance the works of John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem, as well as John Piper and D.A. Carson.  This means that he is not in any way part of the "Emerging Church" movement, and he appears to be part of a moderately Calvinistic theological tradition.  I am still at variance with many of his views as an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist myself, but I can appreciate and respect his views, as at least he is within a consistent Christian tradition.

I am going to focus my review now on three chapters of the book, the first being Chapter 4, which he entitles "Jonah and the Big Fish."   One excellent point he makes is on page 41, where he asserts that many who read the account of Jonah misunderstand it due to misplaced emphasis - many focus on either the fish itself, or the city of Nineveh, or even the person of Jonah.  However, Bargerhuff correctly notes that the true emphasis of the story is to be upon God's patient, enduring, and loving grace, and his love for the sinner and desire for the sinner's redemption.  This is consistent with the historic Church teaching regarding the kerygma of Scripture and divine economy - God's desire is to restore mankind to what he was created to be in the Garden, and all of Scripture (especially its covenants) point to Christ as the ultimate manifestation of that kerygma.  This is also consistent with the Thomistic tradition as well, as the function of supernatural grace is to perfect, heal, and elevate nature, and its prime focus is on human nature when it comes to the purpose of the kerygma.  As Bargerhuff points out too, the legitimacy of Jonah's prophetic office is not in question either, but rather the fact that Jonah messes up also focuses the story back to the primary role of God's grace, which is not only extended to the Ninevites Jonah preaches to eventually, but to Jonah himself.  As a catechist, one concern of correctly teaching the Fidei Depositum is that Christocentricity must be noted in the Old Testament accounts, and this is done primarily through typology.  On page 42, Bargerhuff addresses this specifically when he correctly notes that Jesus even linked his own death and resurrection to Jonah's story, in that Jonah's ordeal with the fish was a typological image of the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Himself.  The following paragraph to this discussion on page 42 also resonates well - in addressing those who would question the historicity of Jonah - especially the fish part - Bargerhuff reminds the reader that the Bible is a supernatural book about a supernatural God who does supernatural things.  That was refreshing to read, in that Bargerhuff affirms the historicity of Scripture and is not subscribing to Enlightenment-influenced Biblical scholarship like that of the Turbingen School.  Reading further on page 43, Bargerhuff also notes the fact that God pursued Jonah despite the fact Jonah balked and rebelled against a divine mandate - the fish was not necessarily a punishment in other words, but also a demonstration of God's grace, which the author describes as "radical and pursuing."  For many who almost divorce the Father in the Old Testament from the Son in the New, this says a lot - it means that the same grace God manifested in the person of the Son was very much a part of the Old Testament kerygma as well.   Note as well Genesis 3, another passage often misused by many and that the author should have also addressed - when God pronounces sentence in the Garden at the end of Genesis 3, it is often assumed that God "cursed" Adam and Eve - if you re-read that however, it does not imply that at all.  Rather, God cursed the ground for man's sake, and the implication here is that if man stays busy, he will protect himself from the temptation of sin.   In Jonah's case a similar misunderstanding comes to mind in the thinking of many who read this story - moving over to page 46, the author notes that while the miraculous - a big fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah somehow surviving - is a prominent part of the story, there are three words that are often overlooked:  "the Lord appointed."  Bargerhuff then proceeds to explain this by noting that the appointment by God of all the steps in this saga is a witness of the unlimited supernatural grace God extends to all He loves, and even adversity is at times an appointment by God to get our attention.  I personally experienced that recently myself when a series of adverse circumstances made me snap, and I even refused to go to church for a couple of weeks.  Yet, there was something liberating about it, and I had time to do some introspection and was able to get refocused and am now more aware of what I am supposed to do and how I am supposed to do it.  Even reviewing this book is an appointment of sorts, as it confirms my own experience in this case - my late spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, often said "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  That could truly apply to the story of Jonah as well.  A couple of pages later, Bargerhuff even expounds more on that point by noting that God even uses human rebellion to work His plan - as noted on page 50, even when Jonah obeys, his heart was not truly in what he was doing, and therefore God used a man with shortcomings to bring a city to its knees and spare it - God uses us sometimes in spite of ourselves, in other words.  On page 51, the author's orthodox position is summarized in one sentence he writes - "Ministry success today should never be measured by the size of the building or the crowd, but by the change in people's hearts and lives through the message of repentance and faith."  True repentance is something that can be accomplished by imperfect vessels - as an Anglo-Catholic, this is made very apparent through the sacramental grace one receives in the Eucharist; it is not about the priest offering, but rather about the Body and Blood we receive.  Grace, as the author notes on page 54, is not something deserved (the classic Evangelical definition of "grace" in this case is "unmerited favor.") but rather is an endowed gift God gives us to sanctify and restore us to that which He intended us to be in the first place.  And, the focus shifts as a result of that grace from us to Him.  That is why the author makes a very compelling case about the fact the story is ultimately about that and not about the fish, Nineveh, or even Jonah.  However, those secondary details - the historicity of Jonah, ancient Assyrian history, and the identity of the fish (which I personally believe to be a Megalodon) enhance the story and there is nothing wrong with studying those details, but the author asserts that we need to recall the real focus of the story is God's supernatural grace.

The next chapter I wanted to turn to is Chapter 13, entitled "This is My Body."  As an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist personally with a definite belief in the Real Presence, this chapter got my attention.  Being the author is an Evangelical Protestant with a more symbolic view of Communion, I expect to differ with him in opinion as I embarked upon reading this chapter.  There is a statement though on page 135 that Bargerhuff makes which summarizes the ultimate desire of Eucharistic theology, although he probably doesn't see it that way - the Christian longs for the presence of Christ.  He then notes on the following page that there are many ways Christians can spiritually experience the presence of Christ - prayer, worship, service, Bible study, fellowship with those of like precious faith, etc.  He does note that the Lord's Table is the unique way we experience this presence, and in a typical Protestant Evangelical way he notes the presence is solely spiritual and a remembrance in the sense of "memorial."  He then proceeds to misinterpret the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence on page 137 when he incorrectly says that Catholics are "in fact" offering up Christ as a sacrifice on a regular basis - that is not exactly true at all, and like many he misinterprets what we do in the Mass.  God transcends our linear time and space, and no Catholic (at least an informed one) would ever believe that we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again - that misconception is a carryover from biases from the Radical Reformation, and I would recommend that Dr. Bargerhuff read the Catholic position as it truly is believed by us - he would do well to read Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper, as well as Brant Pitre's The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.   If one takes the time to really study this, one will understand that the sacrifice of Christ is once and eternal, and by supernatural grace we participate in that sacrifice every time we partake of the Body and Blood, not by recrucifying Christ all over again, but rather by a mystery of faith we are taken ourselves in a way that transcends time to the foot of the very Cross itself, and there we receive the nourishment that transforms us through supernatural grace.   I am amused at how even educated Evangelicals who are intelligent and well-read still miss this, when they should know better.  That being said, I will give him credit though for stating something at the bottom of page 137 - the ongoing practice of sacrificial rites in the Old Testament was indeed designed to foreshadow the future perfect sacrifice of Christ, and I will go further by saying that every covenant points to that reality.  On the next page (138) Bargerhuff also makes another common Evangelical error - the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  I used to believe this as a fundamental of faith until I understood it better myself - God cannot substitute for our sin, and penal substitution is not possible because the love of God is far deeper and greater than our sin.  By extension, so is supernatural grace.  Although Jesus was a perfect sacrifice for our sins, He must not be understood as a tit-for-tat substitution - later on the same page, Bargerhuff partially redeems himself by noting correctly that the perfect sacrifice of Jesus was not to atone for sin, but to bring a reward of complete salvation.  But, why?  Simply, it goes back to unlimited love and supernatural grace - God's love for us is beyond our ability to understand, and it far outweighs even the worst sin committed.  Our responsibility then is to accept or reject it.  In further discussion of the Eucharist (although as an Evangelical Bargerhuff would not call it that) he then makes the assumption that the references Jesus made to "Body" and "Blood" were merely metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic and spiritual, as he notes on page 141.  I would suggest that he re-examine what the early Church taught about the Eucharist - he may be in for a surprise!  Also, while he does acknowledge the importance of the sacrament in the life of the Church, he errs by stating that there is no specific command on the frequency of celebrating it - on the contrary, many Fathers and Doctors of the Church from the earliest times taught that it is to be partaken as often as possible, at least weekly.  One of the earliest documents of Church discipline, dating to earliest times, entitled the Didache gives the admonition to "Gather each Sunday, break bread, and give thanks, first confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure."  Look at those terms - "giving thanks" is the background for the term Eucharist itself, and the confession of sin before receiving it also denotes that this is not mere bread and wine, but something more.  And, the term sacrifice - as an Evangelical, Bargerhuff would not be as intimately familiar with the term liturgy itself, as the word comes from two Greek terms (Laos, meaning "people, and ergon, meaning "work" - they are joined by the conjunctive tou meaning "of" or "from," and thus have evolved together via the Latin liturgica to mean "a work of or from the people.)  and when liturgy is also associated with Eucharist as the focal point of the liturgical celebration, it pops out as being a work of sacrifice in thanksgiving for what God has done for us, and we receive it humbly and joyfully.   It is also an integral part of the Lord's Prayer as well (for another discussion, but I would challenge Bargerhuff to look at the misuse of the term "daily bread" and how it was traditionally understood - it will cause one to radically rethink how one prays that prayer!).  Therefore, contrary to the classic Evangelical assertion that the frequency of how a church celebrates the Lord's Table is irrelevant, the early Church placed a great importance upon that very fact.  Therefore, while some good things can be gleaned from this chapter, in the greater context of faith and praxis it is of little value to a Catholic Christian.

I now want to focus on the conclusion of the book, which begins on page 153.   There are many valuable and good points to be made in the first couple of paragraphs.  For one, he affirms that we should never abandon the literal (plain text) meaning of Scripture, although at the same time we use reason and the teaching of the Church to guide us, which I would add.  There is a traditional four-fold reading of Scripture that the Church mandates, and it entails this - the literal (plain sense), the allegorical (dealing with faith and spirituality), the moral (dealing with practice and living), and the anagogical (focusing on the ultimate destination of our faith - where we are going).  Although over the centuries some Biblical scholars have focused on one and have dismissed others, they all go together and Scripture is to be understood from all of those senses.  That being said, Bargerhuff on the following pages then offers some sound and universal responses to common errors that often get us off-kilter - he notes that we should avoid ignoring the context of the passage, attempt to understand the main point, read it free of modern-day biases, accepting discovered truth whether we agree or disagree with it personally, and others.  However, on one he errs grossly - on page 156, he makes a blanket statement that a common error is allowing "tradition" to cloud facts.  What he says on the surface makes sense - we shouldn't impose human traditions back on our understanding of Scripture.  There is some wisdom in that, but Bargerhuff is not specific at defining of what he thinks "human traditions" are.  The "T word" is almost an anathema to many Protestant Evangelicals, and often they will balk at the mere utterance of the word without really understanding what they are balking against.  In this case, what Bargerhuff needs to clarify is the difference between "human traditions" and historic Tradition of the Church, something that may not be relevant to his understanding but is fundamental to a Catholic Christian.  The problem with many who balk at the term "tradition" is that often they dismiss historic understandings as taught by the Church since her founding in favor of something they "feel" the Holy Spirit is telling them, and in essence what they are doing (although they fail to admit it) is replacing a Tradition of the Church with their own "human traditions."  When that happens, it creates a disconnect - one knows something should be there, but in rejecting the soundness of the historic position of the Church and replacing it with their own experiential "human tradition," they are in essence trying to substitute a filet mignon with a dollar-store weiner, and it will eventually lead to some bad consequence.  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason all form a part of a sound hermeneutic of Scripture, and they are all integral to a healthy theology and hermeneutic.  If one is lacking or replaced, it makes the whole thing incomplete.  So, in essence, what Bargerhuff said by the imposition of "human traditions" clouding facts, he is correct, but it also points a finger back to the many sects of Evangelicals whose own bodies of "human traditions" have often even pitted them against each other.  That then leads to another issue he addresses as an error (correctly) on page 157 - taking a man-centered approach instead of seeing God and His glory as the central focus of Scripture.  The Bible is primarily a book about God, as he correctly states, but it isn't about who God is (theology in the strictest sense) but rather about what He does (economy, the essence of the Kerygma, in other words).  It would probably be important to buttress his argument with that distinction, as there is no possibility that anything could ever completely reveal to us who God is, but his deeds do reveal many of the important things about Him.  That is what makes Holy Scripture true, inerrant, and infallible - God's work is true, and it is for the benefit of His creation, in particular the human race.

There are many valuable things that Bargerhuff does say in the concluding paragraphs of the book which do merit its value, and it compels the reader to take away some new insights on how one approaches Scripture.  He notes correctly in the middle of page 158 the imperfection of human nature, and that our own understanding of Scripture grows as we study more and grow ourselves.  I can testify to that fact, and by writing that Bargerhuff does too - admitting that shows an openness on the part of the author that may even in the future require a revision or two of this very book (and maybe even my review of it - who's to say?).  In the next paragraph, he also notes that people are hungry for the truth but don't necessarily realize it until that moment happens (as it has to me for sure at times) when one's soul gets an overwhelming craving for it,  This leads to the very last sentence of the book, which is "Let us strive to be faithful, and in humility, allow ourselves to be corrected along the way."  That could be a fitting prayer for all of us, and as one of my own professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. Bob Rice, admonished us once in a class lecture, Scripture is not just a book to be studied academically, but it is foremost to be read prayerfully.  I think that Dr. Bargerhuff would probably concur, as despite a few denominational biases in his writing he also is a man who seems to write with a humility, and that I can appreciate and respect.  Definitely read the book - if you are Evangelical reader, you will probably think "This sounds good to me," but a traditional Catholic reader of this text will need to be better-informed when reading it, and read with discernment.  Like anything else, there is good "meat" in the text, but there is also some fat and gristle you will need to spit out on occasion - but, don't throw out the steak because of a piece of gristle - savor the meat and discard the gristle!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dealing with Arbiters of Salvation

This lesson today is a complex one, and entails a lot of background and facets.  It is based on a few personal experiences I have had over the years in particular with regard to some Evangelical Protestants I both know as well as at least one being a member of my own family.  In the course of a lot of social media exposure and participation in discussion groups, it can be challenging for a traditional Anglo-Catholic such as myself when faced with Evangelicals in particular who deem themselves as spiritual authorities in their own right and often "troll" pages in an effort to "evangelize" or do other stupid things.  Most are minor annoyances and easily go away, but on occasion you get certain people you may engage in discussion, and they often can become disagreeable and hateful.  Being it would be "unchristian" to hate, such individuals often resort to phraseology such as this when they are backed into corners - "I am going to pray for your salvation - GRRRR!"   It is their way, essentially, of saying "I hate you!" while putting a religious spin on it.   Apparently, for some Evangelicals, dislike for someone gives them a false authority to revoke or pronounce "salvation" on their opponents, and often their friends can all of a sudden become "saved" (as is true of certain celebrity deaths - I was amused at how many Evangelicals had in their minds already set up a mansion in heaven for Michael Jackson when he died a few years back!) while they, in a blanket statement with the facade of "praying," also revoke the salvation of their enemies.   Thing is, despite them doing this, I never have read in the Bible where this authority was an endowment Christ gave to converts, and if you challenge these people with that fact, they get flustered, and in their recourse to retaliate, they will even "revoke" your salvation twice!  Again, they cannot hate you (that would be "unChristlike") and they can't shoot you, so they play this card to justify the suppressed displeasure and even hatred they feel for you.  There is definitely some psychological benefit to them in doing so, in that they can "hate without hating" and therefore they now can comfort themselves in the knowledge that they don't have to spend eternity with someone as reprehensible as you - hmmm!!   The person who engages in this behavior is what I call an "arbiter of salvation," because they make salvation arbitrary based on their like or hatred of you (let's be real - they hate their opponents, and that is what they are doing!) which is something that Jesus never taught, nor the Church He founded either.  The purpose of this lesson is to first establish what "salvation" and the related concept of "grace" are, and then to both expose the arbiters as well as providing an identification of true discernment.   That being said, we'll start there.

A.  Salvation and Grace - What Are They?

Salvation is a key term in Christian theology, but also one of the most misunderstood ones.  In Protestant Evangelical theology, salvation is often equated with conversion, and therefore for the Evangelical, salvation constitutes a one-time event - this is why when they talk about their testimonies, many of them use the term "getting saved" in the past tense.   Another term often used synonymously with this is the term "born again," which is actually taken from Scripture - the most notable example of this is in John 3:1-21, where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had sincere questions.  in verse 3, when Nicodemus had asked about how a person can come into the Kingdom, Jesus responds by saying that one has to be born again to see the Kingdom, which of course perplexed Nicodemus.  It is quite humorous actually how Nicodemus was thinking in this regard, in that he was thinking that one had to crawl back into their mother's belly and come back out again!  Jesus explained to him in the next verse that this is a birth through the Holy Spirit, and not necessarily a physical thing.   Later, when He is crucified and dies, when the centurion pierces Him in the side with a lance and blood and water come out, it is a typology of the sacramental dimension of being "born again" - the Blood was a typology of the Eucharist, and the water of the fount of Holy Baptism.  Therefore, in a historic Church understanding, being "born again" is connected with the sacrament of Baptism, and not necessarily conversion.  Both aid in salvation in other words, but they don't fully constitute it nor are they synonymous with salvation.   The Church throughout the centuries saw salvation as a pilgrimage that transcends an event - it was something you lived out, and to do so, you needed help.  And, that is where grace enters the picture.

Grace is often interpreted by our Evangelical friends as "unmerited favor," and to an extent there is a validity to that.  Grace is not an earned commodity, but rather is an endowment of the Creator freely given, but also requiring acceptance on the part of the recipient.  Grace is understood in a variety of dimensions, primarily the Thomistic concept of supernatural grace - grace that elevates, heals, and perfects nature.   Although grace was there prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, it becomes a necessary thing after the Fall due to the fact that sin and death have now corrupted Nature, which God created as in itself being good.  Nature is still good, and all God creates is good, but the Fall and concupiscence necessitates restorative qualities, and supernatural grace does that.  When applied to the human condition and our pilgrimage of salvation, supernatural grace is also called sanctifying grace, and this can also be linked to actual grace, which is the grace freely given by God after conversion - the reception of that is symbolized in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, where a chrism (oil) symbolizing the Holy Spirit is applied to the new convert to "seal" them with the Holy Spirit, and the grace that follows is something that is generated by the Holy Spirit's life within the believer.  Grace is unfortunately another of those terms that Evangelicals don't understand either, because they equate grace with a blind assent of sinful behavior even among the faithful, yet by their own definition they often contradict themselves, as when they invoke this understanding they lack the "grace" they accuse others of not having.  In reality, grace is what makes salvation possible, and it should be doing its restorative work on us if we walk in that grace daily, and it is staying in that grace and walking in it, letting it do its transformative work, that salvation happens.  While part of that work of grace may be attitude adjustment, it in no way implies consent regarding adverse behaviors that conflict with Church and Scriptural teaching - compromises in doctrine, for instance, are not something that grace can be responsible for, and the greater grace is learning to love the person while also having the boldness to rebuke their error - few have that genuine gift, honestly.  Doctrine, grace, salvation, the sacramental life...all are integral and comprise the spiritual life; you cannot compromise one without weakening the others.

One further aspect of grace that relates to this is that it is what in theological terms is called prevenient.  Grace is venue which allows the person to accept or reject the path of salvation based on the element of free will - God is not in the coercion business, and neither should we be when we engage others, another fault often of Evangelical "evangelization methods" and even of some over-zealous Catholic converts at times. God gives us grace to respond and engage us to accept or reject the gift of Jesus Christ, Who (as His name suggests) is our salvation.  If we respond affirmatively to God's prevenient grace, we then are endowed with that same grace to help us in our walk, and it takes on its supernatural attribute of perfecting, healing, and elevating us (a restorative aspect of salvation) which continues throughout our natural lives as long as we continue to accept, receive, and respond to it.  Unlike the Evangelical Calvinist, the Church has always held that grace can be resisted, and the most obvious example of this resistance is the sinful act.  Not every sin is condemnatory, but it does do damage to the person committing it, and if grace is not allowed to prompt repentance and contrition for those sins as they build up, then it can imperile one's salvation.  Therefore, the path of salvation is freely given, but it also requires a lot of those who choose to follow it.  Without supernatural grace, following the path of salvation is an impossibility, and thus it confirms what Scripture says when works alone cannot save us, but also that works are a fruit of salvation and a prompting of grace.  Grace, therefore, is an attribute of the Holy Spirit who dwells within all of us, as His presence ensures that grace is exercised in our spiritual pilgrimage of life.

B.  The Arbiters

Now that we have established some foundational idea of what salvation and grace both mean, let us return to the self-styled "arbiters."  Based on what we understand above, there are a couple of things that have been established:

1.  Salvation is only in the person of Jesus Christ

2.  Salvation is not a one-time event, but a lifelong journey

3.  In order to live out salvation, the element of grace is necessary, based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

That being said, let us address these "arbiters" who take it upon themselves to know who is "saved" and who is not.  When someone resorts to doing that, there are several things to note about that person.  First, they are in direct disobedience of both Scripture and what the Church has historically taught, as it is Jesus alone who has the power to give and revoke salvation, not them.  Secondly, this "revocation of salvation" in such an arbitrary way by someone often reveals more about them than it does the people they are trying to "revoke" - they are masking hatred against another person, they are also trying to compensate for their own limitations by lashing out in this way, and they are also setting themselves up in place of the Holy Spirit, which is an impossibility.  Third, by their arbitration, these types of people often are indirectly assuming omniscience - they have no idea usually of the spiritual state of the person they attack, and by saying stuff like that they risk being truly judgmental.   If a person self-appoints as an "arbiter," it means they themselves are not listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit nor are they allowing supernatural grace to do its work in them - if they were, they would immediately be convicted of this behavior and would repent.  Yet. sadly, they often don't do so because many of them are blinded by their own apparent self-righteousness.  For the person who is the target of one of these self-appointed "arbiters," there are steps you can take.  First, they need prayer, and your best show of love for such a person is to pray that God sends conviction to them for this sin of masquerading as the Holy Spirit, and that they will respond and repent of it.  Second, the question to ask them - and it is a little blunt and cynical, but effective - is this - "Who died and appointed you the Holy Spirit?"  They may sputter and babble about it, and maybe even try to use Holy Scripture as a weapon against you for calling them on it, but in the end they cannot in all sincerity defend such behavior.  Therefore, the only recourse they will have is to either become more stubborn in their sin, in which case they risk loss of their own salvation, or they will respond the right way and repent and thus let the restorative work of supernatural grace heal them.  God gives them that choice, and after you present the challenge it is their responsibility, as well as their willingness to accept the consequences of whatever choice they make, to act.  Some of them, who may be just grumpy from having a bad day or may be experiencing a personal crisis, will be shocked into seeing the error of their ways and will not only repent to God, but will also apologize to you.  The grace you have should also allow you to forgive them, and then you can move one.   However, there are others, so deluded by an inflated self-perception, that will persist in their sin and God will in time deal with them directly.  However, like you have just told them, it is not your job either to be the Holy Spirit to them, so resist the temptation to do so - give them the truth, and let God do the rest, in other words.

C.  The Other Side of the Coin - True Discernment

Although there are arbiters who wrongly revoke and bestow salvation based on their personal dislikes, there is also another side of the coin.  At times, you may find yourself confronting someone about their salvation too, and when this happens there may be good reason.  Some years ago, I had a graduate-level class with a fellow student who was Korean-American.  He was genial, highly intelligent, and generally likeable.  However, at this same institution at that time there were many theological errors even being taught in classes by professors, and students who didn't know better were gobbling it up like our ducks outside the house here gobble bread when we throw it out to them of a day.  In one class session, this particular student made a comment to the effect that Jesus was essentially imperfect, had no foreknowledge, and if that were developed further, it could have called into question the Passion, Resurrection, as well as even His divinity.  A couple of years after the fact, I was interviewed regarding some of the liberal tendencies at this particular institution, and when the interview was published, this student tried to engage me in what he called "dialogue."  In the course of his discussion, which was actually low-key and pleasant, I began to feel an uneasiness in my spirit about some of the things this guy was saying, and it prompted me to ask him about his testimony - with that question, he went ballistic, launched into a tyrade about my "lack of scholarship," called me some pretty uncharitable names, etc.  It was apparent that something was amiss in his spiritual life, and upon exposing it, the effect was similar to striking a hornets' nest with a broom handle.  He and I have not spoken since, and my guess is that he now openly despises me for challenging him.  However, unlike the "arbiters," there are a couple of differences I will note.

First, note that in my inquiry I never brought any doubt about this guy's Christianity - I believed (wrongly or rightly - only the Holy Spirit knows) that the guy was a Christian, albeit a weak one due to the fact he was open to compromising some essential doctrines of the faith.  Rather, I wanted him to tell me why he was a Christian in the first place, as a testimony speaks a lot of the person who possesses it.  If he was on the level, his testimony would have spoken for itself, and thus any question I had about that would be answered.  At that point then, had he been more open about his testimony to me, I would have proceeded onto the next phase.

Second, disagreements can occur among Christians, and if a fellow Christian is in error and you know it, that needs to be addressed.  Preferably, it should be addressed by the spiritual authority of that person's church, but with Evangelical Protestants, the ecclesial authority is often downplayed or not viewed as important as it is among us Catholic Christians (in recent times, more so, with the rise of fads such as the "emerging church" and other questionable things among American Evangelicals).  Therefore, among fellow Christians, a disagreement of error must be confronted, addressed, and hopefully corrected before it gets out of hand.  False doctrine is a real danger, and thus it is nothing to take lightly.

Going back to the first point here, I mentioned a second phase in the encounter.  If the person whose testimony you asked to give responds and complies with your request, hear the person out.  It is then at this point you can confront them with the error in theology or doctrine they are believing by asking them, "What brought you to believe this then?"  Based on their reasoning, you can then begin to engage them in an apologetic defense of the faith by pointing out where their position may err, what the Church has historically taught about it, and then encourage them to seek sound spiritual counsel from someone more qualified.  If the discussion is continuous like this, you may not conclude it in one day or hour - it may be a course of considerable time and conversation, and maybe a heated debate or argument or two, before a resolution can happen.  However, this only works with Christian folks who identify and confess to believe in Christ as their salvation, and it will be an illogical argument to engage with an atheist or a person of another religious background - there are other methods for dealing with those folks.

D.  Conclusion

Arbitration and true discernment can have a fine line between them which can blur at times, which is why it is important to have solid communication.  Arbitration relies on defense mechanisms and not true dialogue, and in the course of its action it can do more harm than good, more so to the person guilty of it.  On the other hand, true discernment identifies a problem, seeks to get to the bottom of why the problem exists, and then sets a course for correction.   One, in short, is driven by the whims and fancies of the person engaging it, while the other truly relies upon supernatural grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to constructively evangelize and disciple.  I write this especially to anyone who is engaged in discussions on social media such as Facebook, because these little theological "dogfights" happen, and I have been part of more of them than I care to be part of personally.  It is a good way to introduce spiritual principle to social media etiquette as well.  God bless until next time.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Issues With Megachurches and Modernism

Today I am writing this post based on some insights gained from my professional work.  I work at home as a remote assistant for a website marketing company, and part of what I do is building spreadsheets by visiting denominational websites and gathering the URL's and emails of church staff and then submitting them for research and analysis.  Over the past several months, one of our projects has been a fairly large Evangelical Protestant denomination with many "megachurches" (by this criteria, any congregation with a membership of over 2,000), and I want to share some observations I have noted:

1.  Generally, with a given congregation on this website, there are two numbers given - one is membership, and the other is average attendance.  The trend I saw was that attendance was in general 1/3 of the total reported membership of these congregations.

2.  A second thing I have noticed with many of these huge "megachurches" is the ungodly number of staff members.  Some have upwards of 100-200 paid professional staff, and the ironic thing is that these staff members often are designated "pastors" for some weird reason - if one is responsible for cleaning toilets, they are "Pastor of Plunger Control" or something (that is facetious, but it shows that there is a validity to the concern).

3.  A third observation is also demographic in nature - in many of the cities these supposed "big" megachurches are, there seems to also be social issues such as rampant crime, drug abuse, homosexual activity, etc.  Given the low attendance and overstaffing of many of these same congregations, it shows a sort of inconsistency in witness.

There are some other less-important but still pivotal things about these big congregations which also stand out.  Many of them embrace a "contemporary" worship atmosphere (rock bands, pastors giving motivational talks, etc.).  Also, many of them eschew usage of the denominational heritage they identify with - if they are "Baptist," for instance, they refuse to use that name in their congregational name.  Thirdly, there are other semantic issues - terms like "missional," "relevant," etc. - that seek to almost deceptively downplay what these congregations are really about.  However, there is one standout phrase I want to talk about briefly that really sheds light on who and what these congregations stand for, and it is an odd statement.

I have seen more than my share of these big congregations boasting that "they are different from everyone else," yet when you visit about four or five of them that say that, they are exactly the same - loud rock bands, dimly-lit sanctuaries, etc.  So, what is so "different" about them?  In reality, the only difference they all have is departing from a lot of established Christian practice, and in doing so they are slowly secularizing.  The fact is these congregations, no matter how "different" they say they are, in reality they are cultural conformists - they ape each other, and they also ape the secular culture around them, so there are no true differences about them.  That of course leads into what the whole of my discourse is going to be about, and I want to start with a personal story.

Some years ago, my wife and I attended a congregation of a large Pentecostal denomination in a nearby town that met in the living room of the pastor.  The pastor himself was young, and he was also one of these early "trendy" pastors who wanted to supposedly "reach everyone where they were."  In doing so, there was no structure to the church services, and chaos rather than reverence reigned within the life of the church and its pastor - it was not uncommon to see kids running around unattended, screaming to the top of their lungs, and the pastor himself preached dead messages that sounded like a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen (if there is a difference!).  It came to a head on a Palm Sunday one year, when instead of observing one of the holiest of seasons in the Church, this pastor decided to turn it into a day of volleyball and hot dogs in his backyard.  I was appalled, and refused to attend that day as instead I went to a local Methodist church within walking distance of our house then and had a much more fulfilling experience.  I of course was eventually condemned for that, and told I was essentially "bound by tradition" and the pastor's wife even targeted me for a "deliverance session" which was designed to make me over in her image, which I am happy to say didn't work at all.  Several months later, that church disbanded, and in time so did the pastor's family - he and his wife divorced, and he was later defrocked by his denomination.  In time, his wife continued in ministry, and after some years she actually grew up somewhat and I am friends with her today, although I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with her ideas on several things.  But, at least it is respectful.  I tell that story to illustrate that trying to be "trendy" and "relevant" often is not God's ideal - Tradition exists for a purpose, and it is not necessarily bad despite what some iconoclastic Evangelicals say.  I will talk more about that in a moment, but before I do so, I will always and ever be an unapologetic traditionalist - being a traditionalist has served me well personally, as it has encouraged growth and responsibility.  But, more important, it is about following an order that Jesus and His Apostles set at the very beginning of the Church itself, and while some minor things may be updated and developed over centuries, the basic core of faith, order, and practice will always be Apostolic in the truest sense.  That being said, let's address the apparent iconoclasm of today's "megachurch" and show how in its quest to be "different" it is in reality deficient.

The first thing I want to do is a little lesson from St. John of Damascus.  St. John (676-749) was a saint of the Antiochian Eastern Christian tradition who was alive at around the time Islam was starting to become a threat.  While his family were originally subjects of the Byzantine Empire, when he was quite young the area they lived around the city of Damascus in present-day Syria fell to the Islamic invaders in AD 635. and when he was older St. John actually served the court of the Ummayid Caliphs that ruled the area.  Although later becoming a monk, St. John knew the inner workings of the Islamic government.  At that point in time, Christians were still in considerable numbers, and in order to transition power, Islamic rulers often relied on Christian and Jewish (and in some regions, Zoroastrian) officials to administer their territories, so this was not uncommon.  It was only in ensuing centuries that Islamic aggression, as the religion grew and spread, began to persecute and suppress other religions. It was in this environment that St. John was raised, and it had bearing later on one of his most important works, Three Apologetic Treatises Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, which was directed at both the Islamic radicals of his day as well as the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who instituted the Iconoclastic Controversy that caused issues for the Church for some time (information taken from, accessed 5/4/2017).  What he wrote though is of significance for this day and age, when a new type of iconoclasm in many "megachurches" has created what my Theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. John Bergsma, calls "spiritual amnesia" among them.  It is at this point I will reference St. John's material to the best of my ability to illustrate my point.

Icon of St. John of Damascus

If you enter a typical "megachurch" environment, it is like a shopping mall or a theatre - bare, spartan, and merely utilitarian.  This is because many Evangelicals hold to a quasi-gnostic view that essentially anything appealing to "the flesh" is evil, and it is also based on a very bad misappropriation of Exodus 20:4-5, the second of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments): "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.5"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me."  This is the very verse that St. John addresses in his writings, and in doing so he makes some interesting distinctions.  First, he notes the importance of how the tangible communicates the divine, in that God created the tangible and it reflects His glory (Andrew Louth, Trans. St. John of Damascus:  Three Treatises on the Divine Images.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003. p. 26).  This is also concurrent with what Aquinas and Bonaventure would note later, in that they identified two "books" God has authored (Scripture and Nature) and that one cannot contradict the other, yet Scripture (embodying divine Revelation) through supernatural grace elevates, heals, and perfects Nature.  Note also what St. John says later : "I say that everywhere we use our senses to produce an image of the Incarnate God Himself, and we sanctify the first of the senses (sight being the first of the senses) just as by words hearing is sanctified. For the image is a memorial. What the book does for those who understand letters, the image does for the illiterate; the word appeals to hearing, the image appeals to sight; it conveys understanding (Louth, p. 31-32).  Later, he also says this:  And who will say that these images are not loudly-sounding heralds?  And these were not placed at the side of the tabernacle, but right in front of the people, so that those who saw them might offer veneration and worship to God who had worked through them. It is clear that they were not worshipping them, but being led by them to recall the wonders they were offering veneration to God who had worked marvels. For images were set up as memorials, and were honored, not as gods, but as leading to a recollection of divine activities (Louth, p, 32).   What this means then is that imagery and sacramentals (the term which we today understand them) serve both a catechetical and devotional purpose, and as a catechetical aid, iconography in particular can be invaluable, as seen on the outside of a Romanian Orthodox parish like the one below: 

When Evangelicals misappropriate Scripture based on the faulty view of sola Scriptura, they in essence disconnect themselves from the life of the Church and its heritage.  This is why many of their own churches are often bare, spartan, and so uninspiring - remove the sensory participation in worship, replacing it with something inferior (such as rock bands) and it is a slippery slope toward secularization of the Church.  Dr. John Bergsma relates this to the concept of parousia, which although often has an eschatological application, it also can have a more direct liturgical application as well - Bergsma notes, in a 2016 Lenten reflection, that Deuteronomy 26:4-10 reminds us of the importance of memory in worship, and memory creates parousia (presence) in the true sense because it creates identity - it prompts us to memory of the saints, the Councils of the Church that defined and transmitted our faith, the martyrs and the persecutions they endured, and even the Old Testament in connection with the kerygma.  When those things are either ignored, downplayed, or outright rejected by Evangelicals, it creates what Bergsma calls a "religious amnesia." (John Bergsma, "Lent as Spiritual Warfare: 1st Sunday of Lent," at, accessed 5/4/2017)  And, in our need for that memory and identification, the true memory of sacred Tradition is replaced with inferior "traditions of men that fall woefully short.  I have experienced this many times myself back in my Protestant days - the depressing Sunday night services of some Baptist and Pentecostal churches where the pastor is forced to just pick hymns out of a hymnal or project a bunch of meaningless choruses on an overhead while a handful of people halfheartedly wish they were at home watching the Packers game instead.  There is no sense of sacred things, no reminder of what we are doing nor why we are doing it, and definitely no continuity.  I always left those types of meetings somewhat depressed and lacking, and I personally hated feeling that way.  Yet, many Evangelical Protestants insist on doing things that way, and some will even go to the extremes of trying to "whup-up" the service a little by pretending to "dance in the spirit" and do other such things - if a person chooses not to participate in those activities, they can become a target for "deliverance" as they are accused of being controlled by a "spirit" who is keeping the "anointing" away.  In reality though, it is the people encouraging this behavior that quench God's spirit, for by rejecting what God created us to understand and what He has established even in Scripture, they deprive themselves and others of the fullness of communion with God.  This is why bare shopping-mall megachurches with bad rock bands masquerading as "worship leaders" fail, and that is why attendance at so many of these places is low compared to memberships.  It also may be the reason why so many of them have overstaffed facilities - they are naming people "pastors of this" and "pastors of that" in a desperate attempt to "reach out" and identify shortfalls, but in reality they create bigger issues.  And, that in short is the problem of the "megachurch."

Much more could be said on this, but for brevity's sake I want to propose a remedy.  If you are an Evangelical Protestant who can identify with a sort of emptiness and dryness in your worship - despite the mall-like settings and cranked-up rock bands - I would encourage you to study how the early Church worshipped.  It is not an attempt to re-create the first-century Church by any means, but what you will see as you take the time to look into it is that there is a continuity of liturgical and sacramental dimension to Christian worship and spirituality, and that all senses are engaged in it - sight, sound, touch, etc.  It is doing, as the Psalms proclaim, the worship of God with our whole being as He created us to do.  Therefore, it is not in any way "evil" or "idolatrous" to have statuary, iconography, and other sacred arts in the Church, but rather they serve to remind us of who we are and what our heritage is.  When we begin to see it that way, it transforms us.  God bless until next time.