What NOT To Do For Your Country

Tomorrow, a new president will take the oath of office.  Whether you voted for President Trump or not, there are lots of people who are telling you what you should be doing for your country, either in support of his policies or in opposition to them: folks are telling you to register voters or call congress or attend a protest or donate to a cause or pray for a candidate.  All of those actions might be important, but they are not most important.  In fact, I believe the most important thing you can do for your country is not to do anything.  Let me explain.

 

Character is Destiny

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that character is destiny.  What he meant is that who you are will inevitably determine what you do.  A brave man will act bravely, a dishonest man will act dishonestly, etc.

Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18).

The English word character has roots in the Greek word for engraving.  You might say that character is etched into a person; it is something foundational to who the person is.

Formation vs. Education

In our culture, we tend to overlook the slow importance of character formation and instead prefer the quicker and easier work of intellectual education.  Our leaders talk about improving education and argue about how best to do that, but I cannot recall a public figure who has recently been talking about the best way to form character in our children.  Education is important, but education without character will be useless at best and dangerous at worst.  Character matters.

One of the major themes of the New Testament is about how a follower of Jesus can become Christlike in character.  The reason the New Testament is so concerned with character change is because the early Christians knew that you can’t actually live like Jesus unless you are being changed like Jesus from the inside out.  Only then—with a “mind transformed and renewed” (Romans 12:1-2)—is Christlike living possible.  It is not possible to love your enemies, e.g., without first becoming the kind of person who loves her enemies.

The moralistic instruction that we are constantly given—be more civicly engaged, reach out to your neighbor, call your congressman, pray for your senator, start a movement—is all good advice, but it is given out of order.  Before you start a movement, you first need to be the kind of person who starts a movement; before you pray for your senator, you first need to become the kind of person who prays for her senator.  Character matters.  “Good trees produce good fruit.”

This is why I believe the most important thing you can do for America as our new president assumes office is not to do anything.  Rather, you should focus on becoming.

So, how is character formed?  How can we become the kind of people who do good things, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, the kind of trees that produce good fruit?

Silence and Scripture

I believe the most effective way to become more like Jesus is to spend the first 15 minutes every morning in silence and scripture.  Before you reach for your phone or check your Instagram feed or see who won the late game, you need to just sit and be still and read a bit of Scripture.  Taken by itself, the principle of the #First15 seems useless: how does sitting in silence result in any new voters registered or any new movements funded or any congresswomen prayed for?  But becoming the right type of person will result in your doing the right type of actions, and on a daily basis nothing will be more formative to your character than the #First15.

Character is destiny: good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit.  Who you are determines what you do.  There is a lot that needs doing in America, but doing comes after being.  If you become more like Jesus, you’ll inevitably act like him.  (In fact, the more you become like Jesus, the more Christlike actions will be second nature to you.)  This is what the early Christians meant by discipleship.

It was fifty-six years ago that President Kennedy delivered that thrilling conclusion to his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  As a new President assumes office, I believe that what’s most important for you to do for your country is to be a certain sort of person: someone who thinks and acts like Jesus.

 

 

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My One Word for 2017

As I’ve done for the past three New Year’s Days, today I’m choosing a one word theme to live into for the coming year.  I’ve made goals for 2017, too, but there’s something I like about the simplicity of choosing just one word to knit all my goals together.

 

My One Word for 2017

For 2017 I’m again choosing the same word I’ve chosen for the past three years.

My one word for 2017 is early.

I will:

  • wake early
  • pray early
  • workout early
  • arrive early
  • get things done early
  • finish my sermon early
  • get to bed early

What about you?  What’s your one word for 2017?  Why?

 

P.S.  Fox and Hedgehog

The Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, drawing on a line from the Ancient Greek poet Achilocus, wrote a famous essay in 1953 entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”  The basic idea is that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.  Foxes have a variety of interests; hedgehogs have one stubborn idea.

In this space, I follow my interest wherever it takes me (like a fox) while always writing in the service of The One Big Thing (like a hedgehog).

What’s that One Big Thing?  You’ll have to read to find out.

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Read the Bible With Me in 2017

Can I suggest a New Year’s resolution for you?  Make the commitment to read through the Bible with me in 2017.  At Munger, 2017 is our Year of the Bible, and we’re launching something called The Bible Project.  Here are 3 reasons why I hope you’ll join me in reading through the Bible in 2017.

 

The Bible is Difficult to Read Alone

Lots of folks struggle to understand the Bible, which shouldn’t be surprising: the Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by strange people in strange languages–of course it’s difficult to read and understand all by yourself.  Through the Bible Project (we’ve taken the name from some folks in Portland with whom we’re partnering), however, we’ll be updating our blog every day with explanatory notes, videos, charts, etc.  To give you an example of the kind of resources available, check out this great intro video to the Book of Genesis:

The Bible is difficult to read alone–so don’t.  Read along with me.

The Last Time You Tried It, You Quit in February

Many of you have probably tried to read through the Bible in a year, only to abandon your resolution in February when you got to Leviticus (if you made it that far).  You’re much more likely to complete marathon training in a group, and in the same way you’re much more likely to read through the Bible along with other people.  I’m preaching through the Bible in 2017, we’ll have a weekly Bible study, a daily blog, podcasts, etc.  All these resources are to help you persevere.  Good things come to those who persevere.

Nothing Has More Potential to Change Your Life

I guarantee you that 2017 holds unexpected challenges for you.  How will you prepare?  There is nothing you can do that will have greater potential to change your life and prepare you for the future than the daily discipline of spending time in silence and scripture.

So, Here’s What to Do

If you are a Mungarian, pick up one of the free One Year Bibles we’re handing out at church; if you don’t live in Dallas, get one of these from Amazon.  (We’re using the ESV translation, but they are currently out of print.)  You could also use the Bible app on your smart phone and pick the One Year Bible reading plan, but I recommend using the hard copy.

Follow along with our blog: bibleproject.mungerplace.org.

Watch my sermons: http://www.mungerplace.org/sermon-library/.

Start on Sunday morning.

Of all the New Year’s resolutions you could make, reading through the Bible is the most important.

So, are you in?

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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A Framework for Understanding the Bible

I’ll be the first to admit that the Bible is a difficult book.  One of the reasons it’s difficult is that it’s not really even one book, but rather a collection of books.  (That’s what “bible” actually means: a collection of books.)  Over and over again people will say to me, “I’d like to read the Bible, but I just don’t understand it.”  I hope the following simple framework helps you get a little more clarity and understanding.

All of History in 3 Acts

The Bible tells the story of the great drama of History in 3 acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end.

Prologue

Subject: Beginnings.  Adam to Abraham.  The Prologue tells us why the world is the way it is.  After a beautiful beginning (“And there was light….”)  the story quickly becomes a story of blood and betrayal: Cain kills Abel, and we’ve been killing our brothers ever since.

Scripture: Genesis 1-11

Act 1

Subject: Israel.  The Lord’s plan to save all of humanity begins with one man–Abraham–and it culminates in one of Abraham’s descendant’s: Jesus of Nazareth.  Act 1 is about God’s chosen people Israel, and Israel’s slavery, exodus, kingdom, exile, and return.

Scripture: Genesis 12-Malachi

Act 2

Subject: Jesus.  Act 2 is all about Jesus, from his birth to his death to his Resurrection.

Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Act 3

Subject: The Church.  Act 3 is about how the church is God’s means to redeem the world.  It begins with a small group of disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday and it’s still going, right up to and including the present.  We are living in Act 3.

Scripture: Acts-Revelation 20

Epilogue

Subject: Forever and Ever Amen.  The Epilogue is about History’s culmination, when Jesus returns and all the bad things come untrue and evil is finally ended.

Scripture: Revelation 21-22

Conclusion

I realize that the above doesn’t answer most of our good questions about the difficult parts of scripture, but it does give us a framework within which we can at least get our bearings when reading scripture.  Keep reading–it’s worth it.

 

 

 

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My One Word for 2016

Resolutions don’t work. Rather than focusing on a list of specific ways we want to live differently each year, I’ve written the last two years about a better alternative: focusing and living into a one word theme for the new year.

My One Word for 2016

If it ain’t broke….  For 2016 I’m keeping the same word I’ve had the previous two years.

My one word for 2016 is early.

I want to:

  • wake up early
  • pray early
  • workout early
  • finish tasks early
  • get to appointments early
  • finish my sermon early
  • get to bed early

What about you?  What’s your one word for 2016?  Why?

 

P.S.  Have You Subscribed?

Yes, Dear Reader, I know I’ve been absent from the Internets for the past 2 months, but it’s a new year, and I’m going to be posting to my site 3 times a week in 2016.  Click here to subscribe and get my posts delivered straight to your inbox.

 

The 2 Skills Every Man Needs

When I was a boy, I thought that grown men men knew about the world; I thought that grown men weren’t afraid of anything.  But now that I’m a grown man myself and now that I know lots of other men, I’ve come to realize that most grown men are just as insecure, feel just as inadequate, and are just as fearful as they were when they were boys, but that now, as grown men, they have more power, more responsibility, and more potential to hurt others.  Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t teach men the skills we need to thrive as men; there are 2 skills in particular that I believe every man needs to know.

Every Man Needs to Know How to Pray

Men don’t know how to pray.  I talk to guys all the time who feel completely inadequate when it comes to prayer.  Prayer makes the man.  To be a man of confidence, peace, and inner strength, you need to be a man of prayer.

I talked at length about prayer here, but I believe there is one thing any man can do immediately to become better at prayer:

To become better at prayer, you need to be specific.

  • Be specific in your time and place for prayer.  Pick a favorite arm chair, or your kitchen table, or your front porch, and pray there every morning.
  • Be specific in your prayer requests.  Lots of men are afraid of really asking the Lord for specifics, but this is a misplaced fear.  God desires our specific prayers.  “If you want a brown hat, don’t just pray for a hat.”  I keep an index card in my Bible with specific prayer requests on it.  Pray for a specific meeting at work, or a specific issue with a child, or a specific fear or worry.  (It’s also powerful to be specific in your prayers of gratitude.)

Learning to pray can do more to change how a man sees and engages the world than anything else.

Every Man Needs to Know How to Apologize

Do you know how to repair relationships that you’ve damaged?  Many men, not knowing how to apologize, do one of the following:

  • they either walk away when relationships become injured; or
  • they ignore the problem, hoping that it will somehow get better.

Neither tactic works.  And we wonder why so many men are so lonely.  If you don’t learn how to apologize, you’ll live with failed relationships, and over time you’ll see marriages and friendships wither.  A failure to apologize is one of the primary ways I’ve seen men fail at relationships.

There are 3 parts to a good apology.

  1. Make eye contact.  If possible, an apology should be done in person.  Apologizing over the phone is a distant second.  In my opinion, a man should never apologize in email or over text.
  2. Take complete responsibility.  Say, “I did [X] and it was wrong.”  Never ever make an excuse when apologizing.
  3. Say, “I’m sorry.  Will you forgive me?”

Learning to apologize and repair a relationship will change a man’s life for the better.

Here’s the Good News

Praying and apologizing are skills that a man can learn.  Like riding a bike, they don’t come naturally to us, but we can learn to get better.  And, like riding a bike, you have to start somewhere, and when you fall down, you get back on and have another try.

 

 

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My Daily Media Diet

What are the books, podcasts, websites, blogs, and newsletters that make up your media diet?  You are what you eat, and that includes the information you consume.  Today’s post is about what I read daily as part of my media diet (part 1 of a 3 part series).

What Is a “Media Diet?”

“Media diet” is a phrase I came across several years ago in a web series by The Atlantic.  A reporter would interview public figures about how they stayed informed and what they regularly read and watched and make a simple post out of it.  (I still remember Malcolm Gladwell‘s comment about his daily reading habits: “Since my brain really only works in the morning, I try to keep that time free for writing and thinking and don’t read any media at all until lunchtime.”  I totally identify….)

In part 1 of this series (parts 2 and 3 coming on the next two Mondays) about my media diet, I’ll focus on what I read daily (or at least regularly).

What I Do First Thing in the Morning

I’ve written before about the importance of the First 15, i,e., spending at least the first 15 minutes of your day in prayer, scripture, and silence.  So, I’ve been getting up really early recently in order to have an unhurried time of prayer first thing, before I workout.

Currently this is what I use in my prayer time:

FullSizeRender 9

 

Breakfast: The Dallas Morning News and NPR

After working out and while eating breakfast and getting ready:

  • I get the print version of The Dallas Morning News delivered at home, and read it every morning (except Sundays, when I don’t get to it until late afternoon, if at all).  I have come to really like The DMN and get more locally-focused and sports news from it than anywhere else.
  • I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition radio program most mornings.

Blogs: Rod Dreher (and Not Much Else)

I used to read Andrew Sullivan’s blog almost every day.  Now that he has stopped blogging, almost the only blogger I read regularly is Rod Dreher.  Rod Dreher is a fascinating and unique writer: a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy living in his native rural South Louisiana who writes about culture from a social conservative point of view.

One of the topics Rod Dreher writes about that I find most intriguing and persuasive is the so-called “Benedict Option”: the idea that Christians in the West today may need to follow the 5th century example of St. Benedict and spend less time participating in politics and the culture wars and more time deliberately cultivating the practices that will “thicken” our faith and deepen our witness.  Here is a post from Rod’s blog in July that summarizes his thoughts on the Benedict Option.

Websites I Read Almost Daily

  • I read The New Yorker almost every day.  I like the short form pieces from folks like John Cassidy and Amy Davidson, but I really prefer The New Yorker for its long-form essays like this one about Northern Ireland that I wrote about in April.
  • I also browse The Atlantic‘s website regularly, though I believe that The Atlantic is a much worse magazine since it expanded its online footprint.  Many of the online articles seem to be merely a slightly (sometimes very slightly) more serious version of the kind of thing that I suppose you find on Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post, and I do not mean that as a compliment.  The Atlantic these days seems to feature quick-reaction pieces on hot-button topics that lack nuance and wisdom.  (I’ll say more about my complaints with The Atlantic in part 3 of this series.)
  • I browse the Yahoo! main site and scroll through the headlines, particularly about sports and politics.
  • I check out the BBC Sport’s soccer page almost daily.

Online Newsletters and Other Sites

  • I read movie reviews on Plugged In every few weeks or so.  I’m interested in movies, but I like reading reviews from a conservative Christian perspective (a perspective you don’t get from mainstream reviewers).  I rarely have time to see movies in the theater anymore, so I find myself reading many more reviews of movies than actually seeing movies.
  • I’ve recently discovered Book Notesa free newsletter from Byron Borger, owner of Hearts and Minds bookstore in central Pennsylvania.  Through Book Notes, I’ve stumbled across books that I would never have heard of elsewhere–it’s a great resources.
  • I read articles and watch videos the videos on the CrossFit main site several times a week.

Coming in Parts 2 and 3….

Parts 2 and 3 will be about what I regularly listen to and watch and read in print.  The above is what I read online on a  regular basis.  What about you?  What makes up your daily media diet?

 

 

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Why Did God Permit the Charleston Murders?

We don’t know.  “We don’t know” is the honest answer to any question about why God permitted Dylan Roof to murder the Charleston Nine.  No one knows.  But though we will never have a definitive answer this side of the grave, a strange parable Jesus tells does offer an interesting perspective on the perennial “Why?” we ask whenever innocent people suffer.

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Today’s Eat This Book Portion

The Eat This Book campaign at my church provides folks a scripture reading schedule to follow.  Right now, we are reading through the Gospel of Matthew (about a half chapter a day), and today’s reading comes from Matthew 13, one of my favorite passages in scripture.  Reading the strange parable of the wheat and the weeds this morning has got me thinking about last week’s murders in Charleston.

The Wheat and the Weeds

wheat-fields-nature-landscape-sunrise

Surrounded by a crowd by the shore of the Sea of Galilee one day, Jesus told the following parable:

 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn….” 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!'”

(Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Parables are meant to unsettle, to make you think.  So go read this strange parable again, slowly.  (In other words, don’t scan the way you normally do on the Internet.)

Some Quick Observations

  • Jesus points out that evil and good are so tightly mixed together in this world that no man or woman can perfectly separate one from another.  I know this is true, because I know it is true in me.
  • Jesus reminds us that, though evil seems to be growing stronger, so is good.  This is an evil world, but evil is not stronger than good.
  • Jesus says that, this side of Judgement Day, it is impossible to root up all the evil in the world without also destroying the good.  For reasons only known to God, if there is to be good in the universe, there must also be the freedom for evil.
  • Jesus makes it very clear that evil, though it seems strong today, will one day be utterly destroyed by God.
Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Emmanuel AME Zion Church member Kevin Polite helps members into the church for the service on 6/21/15 [David Goldman/Getty Images].

Let Me Know What You Think

I find this parable strangely comforting.  What about you?  What do you think this parable is about, and how might it relate to the evil that was done in Charleston last week?

 

 

Take the Abraham Quiz

The Bible is mysterious and difficult, but it’s not impossible.  With a little bit of background knowledge about the ancient cultures of the Bible, ordinary people like you and me can learn to read scripture in such a way that even some of its mysterious parts offer important insights.  Below is a bit of background information about a very strange episode in Genesis.  Read the background, take the quiz, and let me know what you think.

"Butcher's Shop," by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

“Butcher’s Shop,” by Annibale Carracci, 1580 [Wikipedia]

 

You “Cut” a Covenant

In the ancient middle east, the way 2 parties formalized an agreement was through a covenant ceremony.  In Hebrew, you “cut” a covenant, because covenants involved taking animals and sacrificing them, and then walking between the carcasses.

And Say, “I’ll Become a Slaughtered Calf”

Here’s the point: when you walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animals, you were saying, “May I become like these dead animals if  I don’t keep my end of the agreement.”

(I think our wedding ceremonies would be much more interesting and divorce much less frequent if we adopted the same practice….)

beefmap

So, Abraham Gets Ready

In Genesis 15, Abraham, on the Lord’s instructions, prepares one of those covenants:

The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” [Genesis 15:9-11]

It’s obvious what will happen next: Abraham will pass between the carcasses, showing his commitment to the Lord’s plan.

Abrahamic-Covenant-890x713

[www.tillhecomes.org]

But Something Strange Happens

But, that’s not what happens:

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lordmade a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’” [Genesis 15:12, 17-21, my emphasis].

 

Take the Quiz: What Does Genesis 15:17 Mean?

What’s the point of the covenant ceremony recounted in Genesis 15?  What does this mean?

(Hint: The best way to read the Bible is to read backwards, i.e., to read the Old Testament in light of what we have in the New Testament. To put it another way, use Jesus as the interpretive key.  In light of what the Church believes about Jesus, what’s going on in Genesis 15?)

 

 

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3 Don’ts When Reading Genesis

Genesis is hard enough as it is; here are three things NOT to do when reading the first book of the Bible.

"The Tower of Babel," by Pieter Brueghel

“The Tower of Babel,” by Pieter Brueghel [c. 1563]

Don’t Mistake “Is” for “Should”

Genesis is descriptive, not prescriptive, i.e., it describes the world as it is, not as it should be.  Subsequent to The Fall described in chapter 3, every situation, family, and life is corrupted by sin.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are sinful men, and their families are a mess.  Don’t be surprised when great heroes of the faith turn out to be seriously flawed.  And don’t confuse descriptions of sin with approval of sin, even in the lives of the Patriarchs.

The good news?  God writes straight with crooked lines.

Don’t Draw Conclusions Before the End

The Bible is not a series of disconnected stories; rather, it is one long drama in three acts, with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end:

  • The Prologue: Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, and the Flood)
  • Act 1: Genesis 12 through the rest of the Old Testament (Covenant and Israel)
  • Act 2: the Gospels (Jesus)
  • Act 3: the book of Acts up through the present day (the Church)
  • The Epilogue: the Book of Revelation (the End).

Each small story in the Bible fits into the larger whole.  You wouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the author of a story from the first page of a novel or the director of the movie from its first five minutes.  In the same way, reserve judgment until you see how the story resolves.  Yes, there are parts of the story that are troubling, but reserve judgment until you see where everything is going.

Don’t Fill the Gaps with Suspicion

The Bible is filled with gaps.  All we usually get are big broad strokes, and it’s left to our imagination to fill in the gaps about why or how.  For example, in the Genesis 4 account of Cain and Abel, why does the Lord God approve of Abel’s gift but not Cain’s?  Isn’t that rather arbitrary and unfair?

Mind the gap

Here’s the true answer: no one knows why God preferred Abel’s gift to Cain’s.  In the face of such a gap, then, we have to fill it with our own conjectures.

Unfortunately, in the modern, cynical world, we are quick to fill gaps in the Bible with our own suspicions.  But suspicion is a choice, and there is another approach:

Don’t fill gaps with suspicion; fill gaps with trust.

It’s true that deciding ahead of time to fill the gaps in the Bible with trust is a faith decision, but deciding ahead of time to read with a hermeneutic of suspicion is itself a faith decision.  If you decide ahead of time that the Bible can’t be trusted and that God is cynically setting up people for failure so he can punish them, then nothing you read will ever change your mind.

A better way is to decide to fill the gaps in Genesis and elsewhere with trust and humility.  Then, when you encounter things you don’t understand, you’ll admit what you don’t know and assume that what you don’t understand has a purpose in God’s redemptive plan.

P.S.  What About the Bizarre Stuff in Genesis 6:1-4?

If you ever tried to read through Genesis, chances are that Genesis 6:1-4 caused you some trouble.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

-Genesis 6:1-4 [NRSV]

Here’s the truth: nobody really understands this passage.  Here’s how Terence Fretheim puts is:

This brief segment is one of the most difficult in Genesis both to translate and interpret.  Certain words are rare or unknown…; issues of coherence arise on many points.  These verses may be a fragment of what was once a longer story, or scribes may have added to or subtracted from the text.  The fact that the text presents ambiguity may be precisely the point, however: the mode of telling matches the nature of the message….

“Consistent with other sections in chaps. 1-11, this material reflects an era no longer accessible to Israel. [That is, the ancient Israelites who were the original readers of Genesis.  –AF] The text does not mirror a typical human situation…but speaks of a time long past when God decreed a specific length to human life.”

-Terence Fretheim, from Genesis, in vol. I of The New Interpreter’s Bible

So, who are the mysterious “sons of God” mentioned in v. 2?  Three options:

1. They are sons of Seth, mentioned in chapter 5, mixing with unbelievers.

2.  “They may be royal or semi-divine figures who accumulated women in their harems” (Fretheim).

3.  They are some kind of angelic beings.  This seems most likely in context, and most troubling and bizarre to think about.

But, basically, as mysterious as this passage is, it fits with the larger context: before the Flood, things were going from bad to worse, spinning out of control.

The good news is that Genesis 6:1-4 doesn’t affect any important Christian doctrines or beliefs.  (Which doesn’t mean it isn’t really strange.)