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Political Puzzle

“I don’t know how that guy ever got elected or why people still support him. He is self-centered, egotistical, obsessed with his own image, and vindictive to those who oppose him.  He broke the law, then lied about it and tried to cover it up. He has manipulated the electoral process, shown a limited grasp of public policy, made a mess of the immigration file, been accused of sexual misconduct, and shown disturbing racist tendencies. He has deeply divided his nation, and his lack of judgement and his offhand comments and tweets have made him a national and international embarrassment.”

“You’re right. Trump should be impeached.”

“Trump? I was talking about Justin Trudeau.”

Question: Why do the people who despise Donald Trump excuse Justin Trudeau, and the people who despise Justin Trudeau excuse Donald Trump? Are our moral judgments, righteous indignation, and political analyses just a cover for partisan prejudice? Are we able to judge both men (a well as other political leaders) by the same standard? If we do, I expect that we will see that both men have fallen far short of the ideal.

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Drummers Drumming

When my daughters were teenagers and began to bring home young men, I would attempt to engage them in conversation.

One day, the conversation gravitated toward music.

“Are you a musician?” I asked one prospect.

Yeah,” he replied. “I’m a drummer.”

The problem wasn’t that he thought drummers were actually musicians. The problem was that he was a drummer.

Oh, I admit that drummers may be useful in some ways, but they are hardly husband material. You see, drummers travel to a different beat.

Way back, when I was in the school band at my high school, the band was playing in rehearsal one day when they conductor suddenly stopped us by banging on a music stand with his baton.

When silence was achieved, he glared at the drummers and demanded, “Is that what is in your music?”

The drummers looked stupefied. They looked at the conductor, looked at each other, and then looked back at the conductor. Finally, one of them reached forward to his music stand and opened his music book.

The drummers didn’t care what the rest of us were playing. They didn’t care what the composer had written. They were just doing their own thing.

As I said, not husband material.  

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Who Were the Wise Men, and Why Did They Go to Bethlehem?

Matthew 2:1-12 tells the familiar story of the “wise men” coming to worship the baby Jesus. The story forms part of Christmas celebrations every year all over the world. In fact, in traditional church calendars, the wise men have their own special day, Epiphany on January 6. But do we ever think about the significance of the story? Who were these men, and why did they come? The Christmas carol calls them “kings” and focuses on the expensive presents they brought. But the Bible does not call them kings. It calls them “wise men” or “magi,” from which we derive our word “magician.” They were probably astrologers, people who thought they could interpret and predict world events by studying the movements of the stars. And they came from “the east” to Palestine to worship Jesus.

So, we know who these men were, but why would they come to worship the one who was “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2, NIV)? Judah was not even an independent nation then. One might undertake a journey of several months to see the future Roman emperor perhaps, but why the king of an obscure people like the Jews? And why bring expensive presents? These men weren’t Jewish, so why would a Jewish king matter to them? They obviously had some knowledge that convinced them that the birth of Jesus was important to them. What could it be? They didn’t know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah (5:2-4, quoted in Matthew 2:6) that had foretold that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem or they wouldn’t have had to stop in Jerusalem to ask for directions (Matthew 2:2).

The answer to that question may lie in the Old Testament book of Daniel.

In 605 BC, Daniel and a number of other young Jews were sent into exile in the Babylonian Empire. There they were taught “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Daniel 1:4), trained to serve in the Babylonian civil service. Fundamental to Babylonian knowledge were the secret arts of “the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2), the rituals and tricks which these practitioners could use to manipulate and coerce the gods into doing what human beings wanted.

Daniel 2 tells the story of a dream that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had. He called in his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers to interpret the dream. When they could not do so (claiming that that this was impossible because such a task could only be performed by gods “and they do not live among humans”), Nebuchadnezzar decided to execute all of “the wise men” (Daniel 2:11-12). That is, he decided to execute essentially the entire civil service, including Daniel and his fellow Jews. Daniel, however, was able to save all of the wise men because “the God of heaven” (that is, the true God who had revealed Himself to the Jews) gave him the proper interpretation of the dream.

The dream was significant because it was a vision of a great statue in the shape of a man that would be destroyed and replaced by a rock that was cut out “but not by human hands.” Daniel explained that the statue, made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron/clay, represented four great human empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) that would follow in succession and then be replaced by a non-human kingdom, one not made by human hands, that is, the Kingdom of God. Since Daniel’s interpretation had saved the lives of “the wise men,” it would have made a great impression on them. It also made an impression on Nebuchadnezzar, who told Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods” (Daniel 2:47).

In Daniel 3, however, Nebuchadnezzar had a giant gold statue made in his image and demanded that all of his officials bow down and worship him in a massive public ceremony. Daniel was apparently not present on this occasion, but three of his Jewish friends were. The men we know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down, and some “astrologers” denounced them to the king. Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into a fiery furnace, probably the blast furnace used for smelting the gold. The three were unharmed by the flames and were joined by one who looked “like a son of the gods,” probably a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus. The astrologers must have been astounded at the result, and Nebuchadnezzar issued a royal decree praising “the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” (Daniel 3:28).

In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar had another dream. Again he summoned his “wise men,” that is, “the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” (Daniel 4:6-7) to interpret his dream, and again they could not. So he sent for Daniel, whom he called “chief of the magicians” (Daniel 4:9), and Daniel’s God again proved able to interpret the dream. In fact, the dream was a message of God to Nebuchadnezzar, warning him that if he did not “acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign” and renounce his sins “by doing what is right and…by being kind to the oppressed” (Daniel 4:25,27), he would be deposed as king. Nebuchadnezzar did not repent, went mad, lost his kingdom, and wandered alone in the wilderness. When he finally acknowledged the sovereignty of the true God, his “advisers and nobles” restored him to the throne (Daniel 4:36). Nebuchadnezzar then issued a decree to his entire empire and to people beyond it, describing his experience and praising “the King of heaven” (Daniel 4:37). He had apparently become a follower of the true God.

The direct witnesses to all of these events were the Babylonian “magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.” It is certainly possible that some of them also became followers of “the King of heaven.” In any case, the story of the remarkable events that had occurred would have become part of the literature of Babylon and would have been passed down to future generations.

Furthermore, the book of Daniel is unique in the Old Testament. Except for a few verses, the rest of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews. But the central part of the book of Daniel was written in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the Babylonian Empire. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the book of Daniel, as well as Nebuchadnezzar’s royal proclamations, were probably still present in the Babylonian libraries and archives, in a language the Babylonians could read and understand. 

The obvious conclusion, then, is that the “wise men” of Matthew 2 were some of the successors of the “magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” of Daniel’s time.

But that still does not explain why the wise men were convinced that the birth of Jesus, “the king of the Jews,” mattered to them. Yet the answer is obvious. Daniel 2 contains the prophecy of the four empires that were to be replaced by the Kingdom of God. Six hundred years later, the descendants of the wise men of Babylon would have been able to see that the prophecy had been absolutely correct in predicting the fate of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires. They did not make the long journey to Bethlehem to acknowledge the new king of the Jews. They came to celebrate the arrival of the one who was “like a son of the gods” and who would establish the Kingdom of God that would supersede all other kingdoms. And they were not surprised to find the baby in humble circumstances, because their ancestors had seen the true God use four refugee boys to overawe the might of the Babylonian Empire.

Three decades later, when the church of Jesus Christ was inaugurated at Pentecost, there were present people from “every nation under heaven,” including “Parthians, Medes and Elamites” (Acts 2:5,9), people who lived near the center of the old Babylonian Empire, people from the “the east,” where “the wise men” had come from. Although it is not widely known now, the early Christian church expanded quite quickly into the area that had once been the center of the Babylonian Empire. Was the way prepared by the wise men, influenced by the remarkable events and accurate prophecies recorded in the book of Daniel?

This article is adapted from the book Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Us by James R. Coggins (Mill Lake Books, 2019).

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Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Us

Do you ever feel confused or disappointed with what is going on in the world? Do you feel helpless before unwelcome trends in society? Do you feel pressured and isolated by what seems to be a pagan, God-defying culture all around you? Are you unsure of what you should do about it?

This is scarcely surprising. North American Christians are living in a society that is increasingly non-Christian and sometimes even anti-Christian. Accustomed to living in an at least nominally Christian society, many North American Christians are unprepared for the new reality. Where can they find a model for how to live for God in a God-defying culture?

My new book, Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Us, argues that the early chapters of the Bible book called Daniel offer just such a model. Living at a time when the people of God had suffered a crushing and shocking defeat at the hands of the pagan Babylonians, Daniel and his friends were immersed in a society where the state, the education system, the culture and religion were all thoroughly pagan. In this situation, Daniel and his friends committed themselves to a course of action that North American Christians can use as a pattern to guide their own lives.

The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters. It concludes with study questions on each chapter and then a statement of commitment, which summarizes the teaching of the book and which the reader is invited to sign as an indication that he/she is committed to putting into practice the lessons of the book.

What Others Say

“If you want to understand the times, culture, message, and life of Daniel, James R. Coggins’s Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Usis a must read. It is accessible (easy to read), informative (filled with history and explanatory notes) and applicable to our time. Looking at the early chapters of the book of Daniel, Coggins leads us into that world with an eye on how we, the people of God, can live in today’s pagan-bent world. This vital and important treatment of this critical moment in the ancient world will be helpful for study groups, pastoral preaching and personal reflection on the ways of God, then and today.”              

– Brian C. Stiller, Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance

“In his relatively concise look at the book of Daniel, James R. Coggins gives helpful insights into the background, meaning and application of this Old Testament prophet. While one will not find a detailed interpretation of the ‘prophetic’ elements of the book (this is not Coggins’s intent), this volume does provide the reader with a glimpse of the stories that run parallel to the prophecies and stimulates reflection on their meaning for life in the 21st century. Coggins does a good job of helping us understand the narratives and what we can learn from them. Recommended as an aid for Bible teachers and preachers who want to get some practical handles on an ancient text.”

– Ron Redekop, Senior Pastor, Richmond Alliance Church, Richmond, BC

Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Us (ISBN: 978-0-9951983-8-8)

is published by Mill Lake Books and is available through online retailers such as Amazon and through local bookstores.

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Never Mind Trump. What’s Wrong with Everybody Else?

“Donald Trump said…”

Donald Trump has occasionally done some things that are right (which is why he got elected and why he still has supporters). But generally his term as President of the United States has revealed him to be foolish, erratic, self-centered, spiteful, impulsive, reckless, narrow-minded, and often untruthful and dishonest. I get that.

What I don’t get is other people. Every time Trump speaks or tweets, his words are greeted by an outpouring of surprise, shock, anger, outrage, horror, disbelief, mocking, and calls for his impeachment. His every word is reported and analyzed endlessly in the news media. Comedians, late night talk show hosts, and others in the entertainment industry attack him relentlessly, making him the prime target of their rants night after night. I have friends, many of them Canadian, who tweet or post negative things about Trump several times a day. Why? Don’t they have anything better to do? Is it like a car crash that is so horrible that they just can’t look away? I should say that I also have contacts—not as many— who tweet and post—not as often—positive things about Trump. But why this obsession with Donald Trump?

And why is the focus on Trump’s words? Some of his policies make sense, and some of them don’t. But nobody seems to care greatly about them. It is his words that everybody focuses on. And if people do comment on his policies, they comment on what he has said about his policies, not about the policies themselves. In fact, I am not sure that many Canadians, or even Americans, know what his policies are. We know what he has said, but do we know much about what he has done?  

Why the focus on Donald Trump’s words? It is not as if he is revealing anything new or, in many cases, important or insightful.

And what good does it do? While everyone is busy responding to Trump’s first words, he has often already contradicted himself, denied he said it, or said something else, which everyone feels they must also respond to. Why so much focus on Trump’s words, which receive far more attention than his policies? Why so much arguing about words, which leave everyone as confused as he is?

Why is there so much focus on Donald Trump in the media and social media? Most of his ideas are not profound enough to waste time on. Giving him that much attention just feeds into his agenda and bolsters his ego, showing him how important and ground-breaking he is. And the more he is attacked by other politicians, the media, and the entertainment industry (which has enough shallow, self-centered egotists and scandals of its own, including Trump at one time), the more his supporters rally around him, defending him against “the conspiracy of the liberal establishment.”

Why do so many people keep letting Trump set the agenda?

Do people think that if he hears enough criticism, he will change? Maybe, instead of attacking Donald Trump, people should just ignore him. Maybe if he was denied attention, he would just wither away into the insignificance he so richly deserves. Maybe if everybody focused on some other Republican, that Republican would gain enough attention and support that he or she could run against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Why reinforce Trump’s position as the most important Republican?

And why all the concern with impeachment? The checks and balances in the American system have worked well enough for the past three years that he has not been able to bring about the end of the world. If Trump ordered something truly catastrophic to be done, I suspect that his minions would quietly ignore him and wait for his attention to shift to something else. Surely Americans can put up with him and his nonsense for one more year.

Any attempt at impeachment would take a long time and would likely founder on the rock of political partisanship since the Republicans still have a majority in the Senate—just as Democrats countered Republican efforts to impeach Bill Clinton for professional sexual abuse. Any impeachment attempt, whether it succeeded or not, would be seen as a partisan effort—as it would be in reality since the only impeachment process in the American system is handled by politicians. There is no impartial judicial process to get rid of a sitting president. Even if impeachment succeeded, it would still be greeted by partisan bickering for months or years afterward. And the impeachment process would keep the focus right where it is now—on Donald Trump.

Why all the focus on impeaching him when a much easier solution is available in the ballot box? Is everyone afraid he might be re-elected? If so, shouldn’t people be focusing instead on why Trump might be re-elected? What is he saying and doing that might get him re-elected? Never mind what is wrong with Trump. What is wrong with the other candidates that many people think Trump might be preferable? Why is no one thinking and talking about that?

Why do Republicans put up with all of this? Why are they determined to let Donald Trump spoil their brand and drag them down with him? Why don’t they run a candidate against him in the primaries? Just about any candidate would appear intelligent, reasonable, and attractive by comparison.

I particularly don’t understand the Democrats. They are so locked into their feud with Trump that they go to the opposite extreme on every issue. He wants to build a wall, so they advocate for totally unfettered immigration. He is a capitalist, so they are pushing for socialism. He is labeled a “conservative,” so they seek out and promote the most extreme forms of sexual politics and social engineering they can find.  Every policy they propose is presented in terms of how it is different from one of Trump’s policies. Their speeches are full of vitriol, accusations, self-righteous anger, and name-calling, all directed at Trump. In fighting Trump, they have descended to his level. They are so busy bashing Trump that they are not thinking clearly about the American people and about the real issues that led people to vote for Trump in the first place. If the Democrats put up a middle-of-the-road candidate who could appeal to even some of Trump’s supporters, I think they would win in a landslide. If they could present a positive platform and an attractive vision for the country and offer a candidate who would appear presidential and statesmanlike, rising above the current deplorable state of American politics, Americans would most likely welcome that platform and that candidate with open arms. But they don’t. Why?

Why?

Why?

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Fortune Cookies

Have you ever experienced opening a fortune cookie and finding a message that seemed very appropriate to your situation?

A while back, I was in a Chinese restaurant. My dinner companion ate three fortune cookies and found three messages:

• “You can be lucky today regarding your romantic enterprise.”

• “Fun and excitement will soon be yours.”

• “Today is the day to make your move.”

Together, the three fortunes presented a very clear message, a very clear path forward for my dinner companion. My dinner companion might have considered the message very seriously and moved forward in his quest for romance—if it weren’t for the fact that he was four years old.

When a golfer hits a hole in one (puts the ball into the hole with only one strike of the ball), it is considered a remarkable achievement. But is it really? The European Tour has set up a “Chase the Ace” promotion in which it gives one of its professional golfers 500 chances in a row to hit a hole in one on the same hole. Several have tried and failed. Would it be so remarkable? Average golfers get a hole in one once in every 100,000 tee shots. Professional golfers on the European tour do it once in every 2500 tee shots. Skill will get the ball close to the hole but will not guarantee a hole in one. Consider that there are multiple variations in the golfer’s swing, minute differences in the placement of the ball, and vagaries of wind, green slope, and grass blades. It is impossible for a golfer to control all of these variables. The reality is that if a golfer drives enough balls toward a green, eventually he will get lucky and one ball will go in.

The same is true for fortune cookies, fortune tellers, and other forms of “magic.” If you make enough predictions, eventually one will turn out right—and that is the one that will be remembered, just as it is the lucky hole in one that the golfer remembers.

There is in the human mind a desire to have magical answers to the dilemmas if life, to have someone or something tell us exactly what to do—so that we will be absolved of the responsibility to make a decision.

The God of the Bible does give guidance, and sometimes it is clear, specific, and direct. But often God lays out the general realities of life, the principles of proper behavior, and leaves it to us to choose to do right or not. We want to know which option will bring success and prosperity. God is more interested in us choosing the option that is loving, just, and good. 

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Anomalies of the Environmental Movement

One of the anomalies of the environmental movement is the sources of its strength. Support for the Green Party varied widely in the 2015 federal election, but where it produced its best results was somewhat puzzling.

The greatest area of strength by far was on Vancouver Island, where Elizabeth May won the only Green seat. The other area of strength in British Columbia was Vancouver and its closest suburbs. The party polled poorly in most of the interior of British Columbia.

The Green Party also did poorly in the Prairies. In Ontario, its best showing was in smaller cities such as Guelph, Barrie, and Thunder Bay.

In New Brunswick, its best showing was in the city of Fredericton. The Green Party also did well in Prince Edward Island.

But the Green Party results are not the only indicator of environmental commitment. The Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau also championed the environmental cause. That party’s greatest strength across the country was in big cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. The Conservative Party, which was considered the weakest party on the environment, found its greatest strength in rural areas, the agricultural areas and the wilderness areas.

The strength of the Green Party on Vancouver Island would seem to disprove this generalization, but it doesn’t really. The Green Party found its greatest strength in the city of Victoria and along the eastern coast of the Island, including the smaller islands between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. These areas have large populations of retirees (particularly professional people who practised their careers in cities farther east); communities of artists and writers; and people who work in the tourist industry. Opposition to the Trans-Mountain pipeline also boosted environmental concern in that area.

The Urban Factor

The irony, then, is that the environmental movement finds its greatest strength in cities. Perhaps those who live surrounded by steel and glass high rises develop a longing for green forests and open seas.

It is odd that environmentalists are thus more often people with the least experience with the environment. Their food and other goods come to them through stores. They do not have the experience of farmers, fishermen, and loggers, who know that the necessities of life often have to be wrested from the environment by hard work at great cost and even with some destruction. People in rural areas have a more realistic and practical experience of nature, while city dwellers can afford the luxury of maintaining an idealistic view.

Similarly, for city dwellers, electricity comes from an outlet in the wall. This helps explain the popularity of electric vehicles and of wind and solar power in cities. Electricity, whether derived from water, wind, or the sun, is generated in rural areas and mostly consumed in the cities. Electric vehicles and rapid transit work well in cities, but don’t make sense in rural areas. There is no transit in rural areas, they don’t make electric combines to harvest wheat, and electric vehicles are impractical in areas such as the Prairies, where there are long distances between charging stations and where farmers have to drive 30 miles on rough roads just to pick up the mail. Besides, with no mountains and waterfalls, hydroelectric power is impossible on the Prairies, and electricity there is often generated by burning fossil fuels.

The Wealth Factor

The urban nature of the support for the environmental movement may also indicate that there is a socio-economic component to that support. For instance, the Green Party’s best showing in the Vancouver area was in the wealthy suburbs of North Vancouver and West Vancouver. The upper middle class, including university elites, the media, and other members of the intelligentsia, can afford to pay more in carbon taxes and buy more expensive, electric vehicles. They are also not concerned about the job losses (the loss of working class jobs, that is) that might result from environmental protection. This is not true of the working class, including the working poor. Similarly, environmental activism is a luxury afforded only to those with leisure time. The working classes are often too busy working to take part in demonstrations and too poor to travel to protests and environmental conferences. If you ask what Elizabeth May’s job was before she became an environmental activist, the answer is that she never really had one. Similar to Justin Trudeau, she has dabbled in a number of occupations but never seems to have had to work for a living.

It is significant that the early environmental movement in Europe was seen as “a reaction to the urban conditions of the industrial towns.” It was often supported by the landed gentry, who were living off the wealth accumulated by their ancestors and who saw the industrial revolution as a threat to their own power and wealth. They did not want the lower classes intruding into their forests and estates to gain food, building materials, and other supplies.

The Romantic Movement

Many supporters of the environmental movement are extremely passionate about the issue, sometimes to the point of obsession. This is partly obscured by the fact that the environmental movement is also strong in universities and intellectual circles. But the philosophical roots of the environmental movement lie in the Romantic Movement of the 19th century, which arose in reaction against the Enlightenment, which valued reason and science. Its emphasis was on “emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature.” It presented a view of nature that was “unified and organic” (a view that derived from philosophy rather than scientific study of nature) and suggested that understanding nature required “an attitude of admiration, love and worship…a personal response.” Theologically, it found ultimate meaning in Deism (the idea that religious knowledge comes from observation of the natural world rather than revelation) and the human spirit rather than in organized religion. In one sense, in spite of the many scientific studies which endorse it, the deep commitment to the environmental movement is based more on emotion than on reason and science. This helps explain why one of the people considered to be a leading expert in the environmental movement is a 16-year-old girl from Sweden.

The Romantic Movement was promoted by some of the radicals who provided the ideology for the French Revolution and by English poets such as William Wordsworth. They put forth the idea that there is a balance in nature and it will function best if humans leave it alone―even though this belies that fact that many species have gone extinct in the past without human intervention.

As a corollary, early leaders of the Romantic Movement, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also promulgated “the myth of the noble savage,” the idea that indigenous peoples live in idyllic harmony with nature and are more noble and altruistic than urbanized people. It is significant that Rousseau lived his whole life in Europe, mostly in cities, and his understanding of the state of nature was theoretical rather than practical; his knowledge of indigenous people was secondhand. Again, in the modern world, support for indigenous land claims and aid to First Nations people seems higher in urban areas than in rural areas, where people rub shoulders with actual aboriginal people and whose land (and the jobs that go with it) could be taken to settle land claims. In contrast to the Romantic Movement and the myth of the noble savage is Hobbes’s view that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

One of the great strengths of the environmental movement is its idealism, its desire to restore a more perfect world. One of the great weaknesses of the environmental movement is its idealism, its belief that the industrial revolution can be reversed and we can go back to living in a harmonious state of nature without cost, without pain and suffering, and without severe economic dislocation.