Leave a comment

Reflections on a Pandemic

Unique world events offer a unique opportunity to learn new lessons. Here are a few we have had an opportunity to learn recently.

1. It’s a small world.  The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically demonstrated how interconnected the modern world is. A virus from a remote part of China has reached Canada (and almost every other country in the world) through multiple diverse routes. We can no longer pretend that what happens in one place does not matter to those of us in another place. As John Donne observed over three centuries ago, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

2. It is a rich world we live in. Consider the closures and cancellations that have occurred. Sports, both those we enjoy as spectators and those we enjoy as participants. Concerts. Plays. Movies. Church services. Museums. Historic Sites. Swimming pools. Skating rinks. Recreation centres.  Restaurants of all varieties. Exercise classes. Schools. Art galleries. Libraries. Bookstores. Ski hills. Planetariums. Zoos. Nature walks. Drop-in centres. Social gatherings. Game nights. Parties. Many of these things are now being denied to us, and they are things that we have often taken for granted. Our temporary loss of these things should remind us of how blessed we have been, and we should be grateful.

3. There is much that remains. Despite its flaws, we have a medical system that is widely accessible; it offers medicines and treatments and knowledge that were not even thought of just a few centuries ago. We should perhaps also be reminded that just as the virus has spread over the world, so also can treatments and vaccines and knowledge be spread, as we learn from each other’s experience. We have governments that, despite their flaws, provide a coordinated effort to deal with plagues and other disasters and that provide law and order. We have a well-developed commercial system that makes food, clothing, and abundant quantities of many other goods from around the world readily available to us. We take it for granted that if we need something, we can simply go to a store and buy it. And, no matter how many churches close, the Church remains, for God is not frightened or hindered by any virus.

4. We can slow global warming. We human beings are being given a golden opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint. The reductions in travel, work, and manufacturing will allow many countries to meet their carbon reduction goals, at least temporarily. But we may also be realizing that this is coming at an enormous economic cost, which will definitely increase human suffering. Going green is not as easy as environmental advocates sometimes naively assert.

5. Social distancing is unnatural. Human beings are social creatures. From the beginning, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Social distancing and self-isolation have seemed shocking to us. They remind us of the many social interactions that have been available to us. Again, being denied social interaction reminds us of the great blessings of living in society, in families and neighbourhoods and communities and nations, and we should be grateful for that opportunity.

Leave a comment

Dangerous Disease, Risky Response

I am a senior citizen with asthma. Therefore, I belong to the “at risk” group. Still, it is unlikely that I will contract COVID-19. It is even less likely that I will die from it. I am not greatly worried. I know that, if not COVID-19, something else will almost certainly kill me sometime in the next couple of decades.

What I am currently more concerned about is the response to COVID-19. Cruise lines have shut down. Airline schedules have been reduced. Sporting events (and whole seasons) have been cancelled. Concerts have been cancelled. Movie filming and movie releases have been postponed. Political rallies have been cancelled. (At least, there is one positive development.) Vacations have been cancelled. Religious services have been cancelled. Schools have been closed. Border restrictions and even travel bans are in place. Workers with the sniffles have been told not to come to work.

The cancellations and closures are meant to be temporary, but there is no guarantee that the crisis will have passed, no likelihood that the disease will have been eliminated, in a month or two months or even two years. Temporary closures could be semi-permanent.

All of these measures are considered necessary and worthwhile in order to contain the spread of the virus. That is a laudable goal and worth it if the measures are successful. However, it is still an open question if these measures will be successful. Infected people can spread the disease before symptoms appear, and it is likely that the disease has already spread to people who have dismissed it as a cold or the flu and who have never been tested.

As well, the response will not be without significant costs and risks. Although the statistics proving it will not be compiled for weeks, it is a good supposition that the response to COVID-10 has created, or will create, a global recession. It is an obvious conclusion and likely inevitable. Whole industries cannot be shut down without it having an effect on the economy.

I am not worried about professional athletes missing a paycheque. It is a different story for the ticket takers, ushers, concession workers, taxi drivers, and other support staff. It is also a different story for the corner stores and small and large businesses that are patronized by these lower level workers.

As is usual, the recession will hit the hardest those least able to deal with it. Some of those currently employed are living paycheque to paycheque. Some who lose their jobs will be unable to pay their rent or their mortgage and will become homeless. Some will not be able to buy their regular medication. Some will not be able to buy enough food. Some will postpone dental work. Some will become depressed and turn to alcohol, drugs, and suicide. As businesses and transportation networks shut down, some needed supplies might no longer be available. Interrupted educations might never be resumed, and that will have long-term consequences. Given the fact that, as of this writing, only one Canadian has so far died of the disease, it is quite possible that the recession will kill more people than COVID-19.

And that is just in affluent countries. The impact in Third World countries will be worse. Most of the workers on cruise ships come from the Third World and depend on that income to support their families. Many Third World countries depend on tourism and on the ability to sell their food and raw materials to wealthy countries. 

The Canadian government has promised to eliminate the waiting period for Employment Insurance for workers who lose their jobs or are laid off due to COVID-19 and also to assist companies which have been seriously affected. Of course, it will be difficult to distinguish workers laid off because of the virus from workers laid off because of the resulting economic slowdown. They are victims of the disease as much as the others. Further, Employment Insurance payments are only a partial replacement for employment income. And the government’s $1 billion commitment will be grossly inadequate to counter the economic downturn. Much more will be needed.

Where will the government get the money for all of this? From taxing the income of the unemployed workers and the profits of failing companies? The government can only give out what it takes in from the private economy. The Canadian government can borrow money, of course, but it has already been running massive deficits for several years, and there is a limit to how much lenders will be willing to risk.

COVID-19 is a serious and lethal problem. The cure just might be as bad as the disease.

Leave a comment

Trust and Cooperation

A few months ago, I was “invited” by Statistics Canada to participate in a “Survey of Financial Security.”

I have always voted in elections, completed my income tax returns, and filled in my census forms. I have nothing to hide. I have even worked as a census taker. But, even so, the scope of this survey seemed unusually intrusive, and I felt uncomfortable with it.

When the government representative phoned to set up an interview to complete the survey, I asked some questions. When she clarified that I was being “invited” to participate and I was not legally required to do so, I politely declined the invitation. I explained that since the prime minister had recently been accused of breaking the law (by interfering in the judicial system to stop the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin), I felt uncomfortable providing the information. The woman explained that the survey was being conducted by a government agency rather than by any particular political party and that my personal financial information would be kept confidential.

However, I felt that if the prime minister could intervene in the judicial process to help some criminal friends of his party avoid prosecution, which he was not legally allowed to do, how could I be sure that he and his colleagues would not also access my personal information, which he was also not legally allowed to do?

Furthermore, the actions of leaders have a profound effect in establishing what is and is not permissible and appropriate. That is, rot at the top will soon permeate a whole organization. If the prime minister can apparently break the law with impunity, then those at the lower levels of the bureaucracy may conclude that it is also acceptable for them to break the law.

In particular, how far could I trust the nice lady who wanted to come to my house and spend 45 minutes combing through the fine details of my finances? For sure, she had been vetted and deemed trustworthy by the government. But then I considered that a majority of Members of Parliament had voted to say that it was perfectly alright for the prime minister to intervene in a judicial process and had voted to block all attempts to investigate his actions. How could I trust her if I could not trust them?

So, I declined. I did not change my mind when the government sent me another letter telling me how important my participation was in order to improve “understanding the social and financial issues facing Canadians today” and to help guide government policy in a long list of areas. I declined again when the nice woman phoned to see if I had reconsidered my position. Besides what I felt was an intrusion into my personal finances, I had also begun to wonder whether the information would in fact be used to guide government policy. I suspected that government policy would more likely be shaped, not by solid research, but by the latest ideological fad or vote-attracting gimmick.   

I have since pondered what was behind my decision. I confess I felt some regret and sadness at having refused to participate since I had always fulfilled my civic duties before. Was I just using this opportunity to register a personal protest against something I considered illegal and immoral? Perhaps.

But perhaps also it was a reminder that society and government operate on trust, and when trust is broken, society ceases to function.            

Leave a comment

Would You Buy a Used Car from SNC-Lavalin?

Two hundred and eighty million dollars is a slap on the wrist.

It doesn’t take an expert in corporate finance, engineering, or law to understand this. All it requires is a broad perspective and common sense.

On December 18, 2019, SNC-Lavalin, the engineering firm at the heart of 2019’s biggest Canadian political scandal, pleaded guilty to one charge of “fraud over $5,000” and was fined 280 million dollars. This settled a prosecution that had been in process for several years.

$280 million seems like a lot of money, but it is far lighter than the penalties that could have been imposed. For instance, SNC-Lavalin could have been barred from bidding on contracts involving the Canadian government for ten years. This would have been huge because a large part of SNC-Lavalin’s business is major public works projects funded by governments. And since most provincial and municipal government projects now receive federal government funding, the company would have been precluded from bidding on many of those projects as well. Consider also that schools, universities, hospitals, bridges, highways, transit projects, and much more are all paid for by governments.

Compared to the loss of such contracts, $280 million is small change. SNC-Lavalin had over $10 billion in revenue in 2018. For such a company, $280 million spread over five years is just a cost of doing business.

Consider also that the charge to which SNC-Lavalin pleaded guilty concerned bribes of $113 million to obtain contracts in the relatively small county of Libya. The company is accused of defrauding Libyan organizations of about $130 million. And this was not an isolated case. The company had already been banned from bidding on many other overseas contracts due to other cases of bribery. In Canada, the company reportedly paid $22.4 million in bribes to obtain a contract worth more than $1.3 billion to build a new complex for McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). MUHC manager Yanaï Elbaz pleaded guilty to four charges on November 26, 2018 and was sentenced to 39 months in prison, MUHC CEO Arthur Porter died in a Panama prison while fighting extradition, and Porter’s wife Mattock Porter was sentenced to 33 months in prison for laundering the bribe money. There were also hints in those cases about possible other bribes involving contracts in Algeria and Alberta. The company has also been investigated for corruption involving the Kerala hydroelectric dam in India, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge repair in Quebec, and the Padma River Bridge in Bangladesh. SNC-Lavalin was also caught making illegal contributions to political parties, particularly the Liberal Party. This might be one reason why the Trudeau government tried so hard to help the company avoid prosecution. It is telling that the company’s stock shot up 14 per cent the day after the Trudeau government was re-elected last October.

That the company got off lightly is indicated by the fact that the company’s stock jumped 20 per cent on news of the settlement. It is also evident in the company’s statement that it “does not anticipate that the (guilty) plea will have any long-term material adverse impact on the company’s overall business.” Even the CBC, often favourably disposed to the Liberal government, reported that SNC-Lavalin got “most of what it wanted” from the plea deal.

This raises the question of why the prosecution agreed to a plea deal. It is not that there was uncertainty over whether the company would be convicted in court. There was no shortage of evidence, and cases against SNC-Lavalin leaders had already resulted in convictions. On December 15, 2019, Sami Bebawi, who carried out the bribery scheme, was found guilty of all five charges he faced.

Did the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on the prosecution to settle the matter, as it earlier tried to pressure Attorney-General Judy Wilson-Raybould? Crown prosecutor Richard Roy said, “This decision was made independently” and current Attorney General David Lametti was not involved. Of course, previously the prime minister had categorically denied that he and his staff had pressured Wilson-Raybould—until irrefutable evidence surfaced that they had pressured her. The truth is that we will likely never know. If the Prime Minister’s Office has learned anything from that earlier attempt, it is likely that it learned it needs to do a better job of covering its tracks.

There is no hard evidence either way. However, it is surely suspicious that the plea agreement was reached, not at the beginning or end of the trial, but in the middle of it. It was also in the middle of the Christmas rush, when Parliament was no longer in session and the deal would receive little attention. By the time critics had time to notice and analyze the deal, it would be “old news,” too late to protest. The timing seems more politically advantageous than judicially mandated.

After the settlement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed satisfaction that jobs would not be lost at SNC-Lavalin.

But what would have happened if SNC-Lavalin had lost the opportunity to bid on government contracts? Does that mean that bridges and hospitals and schools would not be built? No. It only means that the contracts would have gone to other, less corrupt engineering firms.

Consider why SNC-Lavalin might have resorted to bribery to obtain contracts. If the company was convinced that bribes were necessary, it suggests that the company was afraid its costs would be deemed too high or the quality of its work too low. Otherwise, it would have been confident it could win the contracts based on merit.

The court case and the relatively light punishment do not necessarily mean that the case is “settled.” It may be settled legally, but a verdict has not yet been fully rendered in the court of public opinion. A company’s success depends on goodwill, on trust. In this case, since it has been established that SNC-Lavalin broke the law to get contracts and it seems clear that it attempted to pervert the judicial system to avoid prosecution, there will inevitably be lingering questions about what else it will do. Can such a company be trusted to comply with environmental protection standards, employee relations standards, and human rights standards? If it will pay bribes in order to make more money, can it be trusted not to cut corners on construction standards and engineering safety to increase its profits? Next time you drive over a bridge designed by SNC-Lavalin, consider whether you are willing to bet your life on a company that has been convicted of fraud. Next time a government awards a contract to SNC-Lavalin, how will you be sure that that award did not come about as a result of a bribe paid to some government official? How far would you trust a politician who trusts a corrupt company? The settlement of the court case does not necessarily restore public trust in the company.

Leave a comment

Carbon Tax Questions

I received my natural gas bill yesterday. For the last month, spanning parts of January and February, the coldest stretch of winter, I used $31.58 worth of gas to heat my home and provide hot water. (In summer months, it is often less than $10.) The gas company charged me an additional $67.97 to deliver the gas to my home, which seems excessive. I guess pipelines are expensive.

I was also charged $24.43 in carbon tax, $.40 in a clean energy levy (whatever that is), and an additional $6.20 in GST. In other words, I spent almost as much in taxes as I spent on gas. The federally mandated carbon tax is currently calculated at $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 and will rise to $50 per metric tonne by 2022. However, I am in British Columbia, where the carbon tax is currently $40 per tonne and is scheduled to rise to $50 by 2021. That means that in a little over a year, I will likely be paying more in tax than I will be paying for gas. Experts say that to actually achieve Canada’s carbon reduction goals, the carbon tax would have to increase to about $150 a tonne.

I have a small house, about 1600 square feet (slightly smaller than Justin Trudeau’s house, but then taxpayers are paying his gas bill and his carbon tax). I have added whatever insulation I could and added a second layer of windows, years before there was a carbon tax. What else can I do? Stop heating my house? Shower in cold water? (We are already washing our clothes in cold water.) A tax to force people to change their behaviour can only work if there are viable alternatives to switch to.

I could spend $8,000 to upgrade to a more energy-efficient furnace, but my furnace expert tells me that the savings would be minimal and the furnace would likely only last about ten years. (My current furnace is about 45 years old.) Furthermore, any reduction in my carbon footprint would likely be offset by the carbon emissions created in the manufacture and transport of my new furnace.

I could spend $10,000 to install solar panels on my roof and switch to electric heating, but that would likely save me at most only a little money on my monthly heating bills (it rains most of the winter here in British Columbia), and I simply don’t have the $10,000. Too often, “going green” is a rich man’s luxury and a poor man’s burden.  

The carbon tax is supposed to force Canadians to reduce their carbon footprint. But I have already done everything I can reasonably do and can reasonably afford to do in order to reduce my carbon footprint. So, tell me: what earthly good is that $24 a month I am paying in carbon tax actually doing? How is me paying tax to the government saving the environment?

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.  

Leave a comment

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).

Leave a comment

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.


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?