Monthly Archives: November 2010

I'd Like to Tell You The Good News

“Thank you for sharing the gospel with me.

I want to share something with you. I know you will find it almost impossible to believe me, but I will share it anyway.

I know the God you are talking about. I understand the relationship you have with him. I understand the Holy Spirit that indwells you. I understand the Jesus you know. I understand your prayer life, how your soul is uplifted in worship, and how in God you find solace, redemption and grace. I understand the ways in which you see God at work, in the miraculous and the mundane, in scripture and the spiritual realm. I get it. I really do.

I am not behind you in this journey, fumbling to keep up, catching only glimpses of light ahead. I’ve come through the half-light where you are, and gone beyond, into the sunshine. Like you I was once convinced that we can now see only dimly, as through a mirror. But I am here to tell you good news of great joy: the dim mirror is a damn lie. The real world is bright and vivid, full of colour and texture, if you can set down the clouded mirror and turn to see it.

You are trapped in the world of a story. By focussing everything on that story, you’ve made the mythology into your reality. You have constructed an idol to worship: a base idol, made of words and doctrines rather than stone and metal. And, like Demetrius, you are consumed with its defence.

You hear the story, but do not understand what it signifies. Every conclusion you draw, every experience you have, is expressed in terms of the story, you mentally can’t go beyond it.

I know this because I too have been there. But I woke from this spirit of stupor, and so can you.

Let me suggest you read the bible again, more carefully this time, and in some detail. Given the season we’re fast approaching, read the two birth narratives of Jesus side by side, and try to understand what is going on.

It is hard, I know – your mind will keep being drawn to the surface things. You will be tempted to think always in terms of the world that is portrayed, to think about what it tells you about the character of God. I fear that you may just glide over things of significance, because you have been trained to do so. You’ve been taught to listen for the voice of God. That is hindering you, because that is still part of the narrative. It brings your mind always to the surface, with the illusion that you’ve been somewhere deeper.

But it is worth the attempt. Please try it. Take it slowly. Try to hear the real voices behind the story. Try to understand what they are saying and why. Listen to their tone. Use your intuition. Hear the echoes of the words that were not written; and feel the narrative rise under your gaze until you can see its naked form, and finally comprehend it.

You might not be able to do it. Not everyone can. Many who come from deep indoctrination just cannot. All they see is the superficial layer. They can never see the why, the how, the where. But maybe you can. I hope so.

I fear, though, that you won’t even try. That you’ll merely dismiss everything I say. Or decide that I’m simply lying, or ignorant of the true nature of your faith, or deluded, or stupid, or a tool of Satan seeking to attack you. If you can never even wander from that fortress of certainty, then I’m afraid you are truly entombed within its walls. You are condemned to live your whole life in twilight, convinced it is noon.

I can only hope that you can find any spark in you to try. Really to try. Not to dismiss, or to try with a condescending amusement. But to really try.

Even the effort may not be enough. There is no guarantee of success. I’ve seen some who’ve tried and failed, though most shun even the trying. But if you do, and do succeed, it will truly be the best thing you ever do.”

— edited from my response to an evangelistic commenter on this thread. Those of us who have seen the light should encourage those still lost in the darkness, right?


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In Which Andy Makes A Video

Okay, yes three posts in a day means I’m a little bored by what I’m supposed to be doing. But hey.

Andy, some time commenter here, and Unitarian minister, has made a video:

Now you can see what he looks like! I had the pleasure of meeting up with him in London a month or so ago. He is as amusing and warm as in the video.

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Hello Tehran

Dear Iranian Blog Reader,

Welcome. Thanks for stopping by. You were the first person from Iran to come here. I realise it wasn’t what you were looking for. I’m sorry you only stopped on the first page for less than a second, then left, and haven’t come back. I’m sorry I wasn’t more interesting. But thank you anyway.



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The Popular Bits

NT Heat Map

Click this thumbnail to see a heat-map of the the popularity of different verses. You may have to click again once it appears to zoom in.

What are the most popular bits of the bible, to quote and discuss?. Often trolling around the religious blogs it is clear that lots of folks don’t have a wide vocabulary to choose from. So tonight I did an experiment.

Using some code I have, I queried Google to ask how many unique pages it has in its index referring to each verse of the New Testament. I won’t go too much into methodology here, its kind of like looking at the number of results when you do a regular google query, but there’s a lot of faffing about needed to exclude duplicate content, and to account for aliases in the names (1Co, 1 Cor, 1 Corinthians, etc) tendencies such as the fact that verses at the start of popular ranges get mentioned more (e.g. 1 Cor 12:1-10, should either be credited to all ten verses, or none, not to 1 Cor 12:1, which a normal search would do).

The searching process involved 8000 separate searches, and the collation of a fair amount of data on about 15m pages. The top ten passages are:

John 3:16  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 14:6  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 1:1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Matthew 28:19  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 7:16  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
Acts 1:8  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Colossians 4:3  Pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.
Acts 2:38  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
John 10:10  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Mark 16:15  He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”

(Quotations from NIV)

Some of these were a *big* suprise to me. Colossians 4:3, really? Wow. And there’s an interesting pattern among the top 50 – many are missional like this. You can also see in this the problem of dividing by verses. Some quotes, like John 10:10 are rarely quoted in full, only the second half is normally used.

If you deal with frequencies at all, you know that distributions tend to be massively skewed: the winners win big, everyone else is way behind. Sure enough this distribution is a power law, with John 3:16 scoring more highly than the next 6 verses combined. And there are a lot of passages with only a handful of mentions.

Frequency Graph of Mentions of NT Verses

A frequency graph showing how often each verse in the NT is discussed. The verses are ordered by decreasing frequency. The y scale is an adjusted number of pages - it won't be the value you get if you try this, because you won't share my underlying mathematical model.

Here is a graph of the frequency distribution of results. You can see that the first few are huge, and everyone else is basically nowhere. Obviously a very tiny proportion of the NT gets talked about.

A better diagram is the heat map above. This shows the relative distribution of popular bits. Note that the colors are generated by rank (not by absolute score), because if we did a heat map by score the whole thing would be purple with one or two blues, and then John 3:16 in red.

You can see some interesting trends on there (click for a bigger view, really it is worth it! – you may have to click again once it appears though, because it is taller than your screen, some browsers shrink it to fit). In particular you can see that John is the rockstar gospel, although Matthew’s sermon on the mount does pretty well. Among the letters Colossians is the clear winner, although Galatians is also pretty hot. I was surprised at 1 John, being so important, and 1 Corithians being so sparse. And Christians obviously don’t like encouragement, because Paul’s least scathing letter, 1 Thessalonians is practically entirely purple. And interesting that the top passage in Mark (16:15) isn’t really part of Mark at all.

There’s only so many conclusions you can draw around this, it is meant for fun rather than serious study. But if there are specific questions you’d like me to answer with the data, leave a comment.


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The Hierarchy of Moral Principles

A couple of conversations in the last week have made me think about morality tonight.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about moral principles that I try to live by. For example “do no violence”, “be truthful”, “be compassionate”, “stand against injustice”. And I’ve been thinking about how these interact. Because they do. As I imagine gradually more extreme situations, any moral principle I might hold turns out to be a flexible guideline. And I realise that in very non-extreme situations I hold some other moral principles that I didn’t expect.

The interaction of moral principles seems to be hierarchical. There are definitely higher principles and lower principles.

For example, I am (in American political terms) pro-choice. But I also hold a moral position “don’t abort pregnancies”. That is a rather complex position: one where the severity of the moral prohibition changes based on the development of the foetus, and the situation of the mother. I think it a pretty obvious moral wrong to abort a foetus the day before it comes to term, for example. But I think while it would have been preferable to have a different outcome, it is no more immoral to abort an early stage foetus than it would be to impose the anguish of a pregnancy and childbirth on the undesiring mother. And even in the extreme case I can think of situations in which the abortion would be the morally preferable choice to worse evils.

This much is probably nothing new or insightful. But my attempt tonight to actually make explicit some of these connections has been interesting, and not entirely intuitive.

I believe in truth and honesty, for example, but if I’m honest, I compromise my integrity fairly often for social reasons. It may be not saying something that someone should know. Or else feigning more support for a position or person than I feel. Or emphasizing something that I know will lead someone to jump to the wrong (and a better) conclusion about me.

I guess we all do that. But the surprising thing to me is that, if I really think about them, many of those cases don’t feel morally wrong (sure, some do – mostly the ones that are designed to inflate my ego – they are morally wrong, but many aren’t). So I obviously have some kind of moral principle around “be social” or “be a good friend” that trumps my “be honest” sense. And I wouldn’t have thought that would be true about me. I would never have thought that my “be honest” would be an absolute (do you lie about the Jews in your attic to the Nazi officer? Hell yes!), but maybe not that negotiable.

And I’m not sure what is at the top. Maybe “protect your family”. I don’t know. The higher I climb the more far-fetched the imaged scenarios (“okay, I would kill the guy trying to kill my son, but would I kill the guy trying to kill my son if it meant dropping a bomb on a city and killing a hundred innocent bystanders…hmmm”), and the less I am at all confident that any intuitive response at that point is dependable.

If you think honestly about moral decisions you’ve made in the past, do you find that things you would have thought immoral actually don’t feel so?

A side note to bring things back to religion. As I’m thinking of these terrible scenarios, I can run to the most extreme: something like “is it moral to do X rather than see a thousand innocent people tortured to death over some extended period”. And I’m reminded why any Christianity which preaches a literal Hell can have no claims to its own morality nor to a moral God.


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Paul on Jesus

One of the most interesting features of the NT is that Paul, the earliest Christian source we have, seems to know almost nothing about Jesus the man. He is completely obsessed by his death and resurrection, of course, and regularly talks about how Jesus has appeared to him. But we get no details about his life. This is particularly interesting given the way that non-evangelical Christians often stress the teachings and the actions of Jesus as being the foundation of their faith.

Mosaic of St Paul

The central roundel from the mosaic of St Paul in the archepiscopal oratory of St. Andrew in Ravenna, Italy.

So here’s the low down. Paul seems to know a few basic facts about Jesus, such as that he was Jewish, and he wasn’t rich. He also seems to know about the 12 disciples, and the fact that Jesus has brothers (all of which he reveals because he was struggling against their authority, and trying to claim his own). The author of Acts has Paul quote Jesus once: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), but if this quote is of Jesus (let alone if the author is correct in giving it to Paul), then it isn’t recorded elsewhere – it isn’t in the gospels. Another similar quote appears in 2 Cor 12:8-9 where Paul quotes something that we don’t have another record of Jesus saying: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” – in this case a phrase which sounds unlike the Jesus presented in the gospels.

Then there are two teachings of Jesus that Paul seems to be aware of: Jesus’s prohibition on divorce, which appears in Mark 10:2-10 (and its parallels in Matt 19:3-12 and in abbreviated form in Luke 16:18). Paul seems to reference this in 1 Cor 7:10-11 where he says “I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…”. But even then he goes on to contradict Jesus, by saying that if an unbeliever leaves a believer, the believer isn’t bound to them any longer.

The second teaching is more vague. Paul suggests that it is okay for someone to be paid for their ministry. For example, in 1 Cor 9:14 (“The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from it.”). Which may or may not reflect Jesus’s teaching in Luke 10:7 “The worker deserves his wages” (talking about the disciples’ evangelical efforts) and its possible parallel in Matt 10:10.

Which leaves us with only one unambiguous reference to the life and teachings of Jesus: the reference in 1 Cor 11:23-25 to the last supper. This is directly parallel to Matt 26:26-29, Mark 24:22-25 and Luke 22:19-20. In fact it is more parallel than that. It is almost word for word with the version in Luke. Which suggests that Paul (despite his insiting that the teaching came directly from Jesus, not through other people) might be finding that information in a literary source. Whatever the merits of that hypothesis, it doesn’t affect the general point – it is the only clear reference to something Jesus did or said during his ministry.

So, in summary

1 Cor 11:23-25 — The bread and wine, the only obvious parallel.

1 Cor 9:14 — Evangelists should receive material support for their work. A loose correspondence.

1 Cor 7:10-11 — Paul may be referring to Jesus’s teaching on divorce, but goes on to disagree.

2 Cor 12:8-9 — Paul quotes Jesus, but it doesn’t sound like Jesus, and the quote isn’t elsewhere.

Acs 20:35 — Luke quotes Paul quoting Jesus, but again we don’t have the quote elsewhere.

Gal 2:9 — Paul knows about the disciples Peter, John and James, and that (Gal 1:19) James was Jesus’s brother.

Gal 4:4 — Paul knows that Jesus is born of a woman under the law (i.e. was a Jew).

1 Cor 15:5 — Paul knows the ‘twelve’, but he doesn’t make it explicit if he associates them with Jesus’s disciples.

This lack of discussion in Paul has been often remarked upon. It just genuinely seems that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus’s life or teaching, his miracles or his admonitions. Rather Paul focusses entirely on the Jesus he claims to know – the risen Christ. Some scholars have insisted that this isn’t a problem, for example Dunn says “Nevertheless, in letters not intended to provide biographical details, the number of allusions is probably enough to confirm both Paul’s knowledge of and interest in Jesus prior to his death and resurrection.” Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans, 2003. p 143. Which just seems ostrich-like denial to me.

The incarnation was a unique event in history where God spent time living among and teaching his creation, but Paul is content to never draw on that teaching or life? I say that’s odd.

So how do we resolve this? Well some have suggested this is evidence that Paul invented Jesus and he was a mythical figure who never really existed. But this doesn’t account for the fact that one of the few things Paul does say is that Jesus had brothers, of whom he names James and claims to have interacted with him. So that doesn’t wash for me.

I think it is most likely that Paul piggybacks onto the nascent Jesus movement. He takes some of the teachings that are circulating (such as the teaching about Jesus having been resurrected after his death, and the passover meal before it), and after a significant spiritual event (the Damascus road incident, but be aware that we only get that information from Acts, Paul is far far more conservative about what happened), he effectively deposits onto that movement his own spiritual innovation. He isn’t interested in Jesus’s teachings because he is only interested in himself and his own spiritual understanding and quest. It isn’t just Jesus, Paul never talks about anyone else’s teachings as significant, mentioning other teachers only when they explicitly teach the same thing as him, or when he’s in opposition to them.

This is my surmise, my hypothesis. I don’t claim we can evidence this in detail, but it seems to fit both what we know of Paul’s writings and what we know of the chronology of the first century spread in Christianity. If this is the case then it is true, as has been often remarked, that the world’s largest religion owes more to Paul than Jesus.


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Is this spam effective?

I got a spam comment today that said just:

To all the above commentors. Blogs can be much better to read if You can keep Your comments simple and to the point. No-one likes to read giant comments when the concept can be conveyed using a not as long comment.

With the obligatory links back to some deal or other. Is that supposed to be successful? Even if it got past the spam bot, how would any blogger not kill it?

I understand that you try to hit the 0.1% of unprotected blogs. But honestly.


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