Tag Archives: theology

A Brief Thought on Prayer

I was skimming around and came across an article about prayer and sports.  While the main purpose of the article to point out that it is acceptable to pray actually for the victory of one team or the other, this passage really upset me.

Sometimes we merely fill out a requisition form and call it a prayer. That is, we tell God in a clear sentence what we want and then go back to work, trusting that he gets it and appreciates that he and we are all too busy to stand on ceremony. That’s a kind of prayer but sketchy, a pale version of the full-dress form that entails hours of high-octane concentration, which is God’s way of letting us participate in his constant engagement with and intervention in human affairs.

Passing snide remarks against people who pray short prayers is upsetting, and initially the reason I found it upsetting was not clear to me. To restate the highlighted lines without the snark, and from a different perspective: ‘Sometimes we ask briefly for what distresses us most, and then return to the work of our vocation, trusting God to care for our need and to answer our cry for help.’ Then the author proceeds to call this a sketchy and pale of a form of prayer, the real version of which requires hours of concentration.

Now what bothered me most became clear during church yesterday. Being a liturgical Lutheran, orthodox teaching comes from all parts of the service.  In this case it came when the Pastor finished the special prayers and said (and I abbreviate because I am miles away from my hymnal) ‘And we join in that prayer You taught us to pray:’ after which we prayed the Lord’s prayer.

The Lord’s prayer, if you will permit me to summarize is:

  • One phrase identifying who we are praying to
  • Four phrases of praise to finish out the sentence (in English at least)
  • One short sentence asking for God’s care of our bodily needs
  • One sentence asking for forgiveness of our sins
  • And one sentence pleading for deliverance from temptation and evil

In all, I suspect it takes less than two minute to pray, even at the snail’s pace we pray out loud together in church. And it looks an awful lot like the aforementioned ‘requisition form’.

It seems to me that the author of this piece on prayer has made a grave mistake, he has snarked (though surely unintentionally) at the prayer that God Himself taught us to pray. And while I would never claim that hours of prayer are wrong, it is vital to remember the whole instruction. Here from Matthew chapter 6 (From NIV, from Bible Gateway)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

So, the model prayer taught to us by God Incarnate is a short prayer, briefly pleading from God the needs of both the body and the soul.  To say that such prayers are pale and less worthy is at the very least a travesty of pompous misunderstanding.

For more: see the Lords Prayer section of the Small Catechism

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Hypocrite

A very common accusation made against Christians is that they are such horrible hypocrites, why cannot they just be honest and allow everyone to peacefully life in their own ideas of morality. Of course, who is a hypocrite actually depends on how you define the word. I am afraid most people who make this accusation are not even attempting to use it as anything other than an insult. These people we will ignore, why defend yourself against the charge of being a poopy-head?

However there are people who legitimately believe that Christian, and anyone who believes in an objective morality, are hypocrites, and who say it, not as an insult to distract but as a legitimate objection. After all, a hypocrite is a liar and a cheat, if only they were honest. For all these people there are two actual definitions of the word that are useful. (This is from Merriam- Webster online, from mostly memory.) 1. A person who pretends to be virtuous or religious and is really not, and 2. A person who acts in contradiction to his stated beliefs.

Most people who argue against Christianity in this vein mean definition number two, however it is not impossible for someone to believe that every single Christian who has ever lived was just pretending. But, since someone who believes that no one actually believes Christianity (despite the thousands and perhaps even millions who have died rather than stop ‘pretending’) cannot be convinced it is useless to try.

However, the last point, that Christians act in contradiction to their beliefs is true. This accusation is thrown around as if a grand discovery by atheists, but most pastor and priests, most theologians through history, the Church fathers, and St. Paul all could have told him this was the case.  The accusation ‘you don’t practice what you preach!’ is an uninformed outside view of Christianity. Of course we do not practice what we preach. That we cannot practice what we preach is the central message of what we call the ‘Law’ which convicts us of our sins and points out our need for a savior. That every week Christians are beset by temptations, and commit sins, even horrible and vile sins, is no surprise to Christians.

We preach that God requires perfection, not some Olympic judge’s idea of perfection, but real perfection: perfection in thought, word, and deed. So, we expect every single Christian to be a hypocrite in the second definition. That is why we need salvation from Jesus Christ who was perfection for us.

And so, to those who say ‘At least I am not a hypocrite.’ Or ‘At least he’s honest.’ I have one thing to say: ‘At least I am a hypocrite!’ (I am also honest about the fact that I am sinful. But that is not what people mean when they say ‘At least he’s honest.’) At least I have a rule to live by!

This all reminds me of the different way that politicians get treated depending on their party affiliation. If a democrat has a male prostitution ring busted in his basement, or abandons a drunk girl to drown in his car , or has sex with the interns (you know that one), the reaction is entirely different that if a Republican is caught in a sex scandal. The republican gets ostracized by society, the democrat (for occasionally much worse things.) end up being respected members of their caucus. The entire difference is that somehow, being a hypocrite definition #2 has become one of the worst crimes in many people’s minds rather than the natural states of everyone who tries to be better than they are. Ultimately, every human being is sinful, every human being does bad things, and some try to do better and tell others they should try to do better… and they are hypocrites.

Christians preach about what people should do for two reasons: the secondary reason is to guide them in their lives of faith into being better people, the second and most important reason is to remind everyone that they need Jesus Christ, his death and his resurrection to be perfection for them.

This great article is related to the idea of perfection and salvation and titled: Should we stone abortion clinicians?  

Everyone needs reconciliation. Tough guys are victims too. Bullies, gang bangers, drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers – they are hurting and empty inside. They are enslaved to their desires.They need serious healing. We tend to overlook their need for redemption, and only wish swift justice upon them. Such desire for justice is good, but not at the expense of mercy. They too can be saved – look at Mary Magdalene or the good thief on the Cross or Saul or Augustine the playboy or Giles the Satanist or Vladimir the rapist and practitioner of human sacrifice – they all have one thing in common: Conversion. And now their names begin with 2 special letters: St. They became saints. That’s the power of the gospel for sinners – it makes them saints. Why the complaining? Why the qualifications? Don’t be a Donatist. Instead, hear the words of Jesus, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The One Rule that Rules them All

There is one rule of writing fiction that is the key rule, the Pendragon of rules. I will illustrate it with the genre of Historical Fiction, the easiest genre in which to find this rule broken. There are many shades and subtleties that refract from the rule, but it boils down this: Do not lie to your reader! The positive form is equally important: Tell your reader the truth! (Which, of course, is not quite the same thing.)

Taking the example of historical fiction, and the excellent negative example of The Da Vinci Code we start. The Da Vinci Code is perhaps the most egregious example of a filthy, lying, novel. (It piles on the fables another layer of deceit with mostly fraudulent footnotes too, but that is another topic entirely.) Let us consider one major thesis of the ‘history’ that Dan Brown tells his reader.

Remember, the goal of writing a good novel is to never lie to your reader (and to tell the truth). That means especially for historical fiction that the historical narratives and the events around your fictional events are accurate to history. This also means that when building up your knowledge of history you follow the gold standard of believable sources. This is, briefly, that primary sources trump secondary sources which indeed trump tertiary sources, and anything beyond that deserves to be laughed at as a source. Also, sources whose potential bias is known are more valuable than sources of unknown biases. Lastly, when hostile sources and friendly sources agree, and they are both primary in nature, you can be fairly confident that this is the historical truth.

Returning to Dan Brown, therefore, we investigate his claims that, for instance, the council of Nicaea only excluded the gnostic ‘gospels’ because they undermined the churches authority etc. as well as the related claim that these gnostic ‘gospels’ are of equal or greater value in determining the events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life.  I put these assertions together because they fall to the same criticism. The Council of Nicaea on AD 325 knew quite well what historical scholars know today, that the gnostic ‘gospels’ were written later by at least 100 years than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and were written by people who could never have even met of known Jesus, nor even known people who know him. (Which would constitute a secondary source.) This information means that for all intents and purposes, either Dan Brown did no research, or he lied to his audience, breaking this rule.

(On an interesting side note, he also got the teaching of Gnosticism wrong. Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, and that His nature is true God and true man, together.  There are, and were for most of the Church’s history, heresies that taught that Jesus was only a man, which is what Dan Brown claims the Gnostic gospels prove. However the alternate heresy, that Jesus appeared as a man but His essence was only that of God, is actually what Gnostics believed.)

So ultimately, this means that authors must write about what they know, or research and come to know what they wish to write about. If the author wishes a character to go crazy, he needs to know in decent detail, about craziness. The flip side of the coin, the one that tells the author to tell the truth, I describe to some extent in ‘The Right Story told True’ and will likely revisit again as it interests me.