Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Herod still runs amok: Islamists in Congo

United Methodist Bishop Unda Yemba Gabriel is resident bishop of the East Congo Episcopal Area. He preached at the Tennessee Annual Conference last summer. He sent this message to Bishop Bill McAlilly this week.
To brothers and sisters in Christ:
Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 
As I write these few lines, my heart is too heavy because of the situation going on in Beni territory, northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is part of my Episcopal Area. The efforts of our army (are) insufficient to protect people. 
People there are killed every day in the neighboring villages and we run the risk of losing all our believers. Two weeks ago, a group of Uganda rebels killed people in the villages (of) Kamango, Oicha and Mbawu. A Methodist family (a father, his wife and their two children) were killed with machetes. 
Many people are fleeing to Beni. Our local congregations there are crowded with displaced people who flee from villages for their lives. We need your prayers. But, as you know, food and basic needs must be met. Our evangelization should reach people in need. 
I am sending this SOS message to all those who may want to help. 
May God be with us all during Christmas, but let’s keep in mind that our brothers and sisters are dying somewhere because of selfish interests. 
Bishop Unda Yemba Gabriel
Resident Bishop, East Congo Episcopal Area
Two thousand years ago, King Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill every male child two years old or younger, thinking that the dragnet would surely include the young Jesus. But Jesus and his family had already left town. The killing of the children has become knows as the "slaughter of the innocents."

Der Kindermord zu Bethlehem (The Slaughter of the Innocents)
Original lithograph, 1960, by Otto Dix
The world's opposition to Christianity certainly did not stop at Herod. In our present day the Islamist murderers of ISIS have been slaughtering Arab Christians by carload lots in Syria and Iraq. They have recorded the killings on video and posted them on the internet. I'll not post any here, they are shocking and gruesome, but according to Western Muslims who have translated the audio, the ISIS killers use actual formal phrases of sacrificial Muslim worship when killing the Christians. Clearly, they say, ISIS sees the murders not merely as holy duty but literally as human-sacrificial worship.

The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is not so clear, however. There have been anti-government insurgencies there with varying degrees of intensity for about 20 years. Presently, more than 15 different armed groups operate in the Beni region and even more in nearby Lupero. Attacks and abductions for ransom have intensified all around with many hundreds per year. These groups include but are not only Muslim gangs. Some are simply outlaw bandits. For example,
KINSHASA, 10 December 2014 (IRIN) - The murders of more than 250 men, women and children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Beni Territory in recent weeks have widely been blamed on an insurgency of Ugandan origin known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces-NALU (ADF-NALU). But several armed groups and racketeering gangs are active in the area and the culprits of these killings have not been incontrovertibly identified. 
Who is the Alliance of Democratic Forces? explains:
The Alliance of Democratic Forces (ADF) is made up of Ugandan opposition forces, supported by the Government of Sudan, which fought the Government of Uganda. The ADF was formed in the late 1990s. According to the UN, most of its members are Islamists who want to establish Sharia law in Uganda. This Ugandan Muslim rebel group has conducted limited activities in Uganda and DR Congo. The Allied Democratic Forces, originally a Ugandan based insurgency, now operates in eastern DRC and is listed as a terrorist organization.
Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Beni Territory is on the DRC's east, bordering Uganda.
Bishop Gabriel did not identify who carried out the murders in the villages of Kamango, Oicha and Mbawu, although his identification of them as "Ugandan" reasonably points to the Islamist ADF. Originally, the ADF was made up of a coalition Ugandan refugee groups who found themselves marginalized after the fall of Uganda's dictator, Idi Amin. Taking refuge in Congo, they originally oriented toward agressing the Ugandan government, which they still do, but have over time attempted to cement Islamist rule in larger areas of the DRC. About the middle of last year the ADF began a resurgence in the Congolese district of Beni. The Congolese government says that the ADF is receiving training, equipment and funding from Al-Shabaab in Somalia, an Islamist group that rivals ISIS in its brutality and insistence on enforcing strict sharia law. It was Al-Shabaab that gained widespread notoriety for its kidnapping of dozens of Christian girls and young women to use as sex slaves, a deed that earned the Obama administration's condemnation. Some Western analysts affirm the ADF's relationship with Al-Shabaab but others do not.

Fortunately for Beni, the ADF is not very large, estimated to include no more than about 1,500 combatants. The ADF claims it is growing daily, however, and it is apparently very efficiently organized and managed. The great majority of Muslims in Congo and Uganda are not politicized and are not easily attracted to Islamist groups. (Interestingly, the ADF's leader, Jamil Mukulu, is a Christian convert to Islam. He has been under UN sanctions since 2011.)

ADF Leader Jamil Mukulu addresses some fighters and children. The Allied Democratic Forces rebels indoctrinate children as young as 3 years, before they become terrorists.

On the other hand, there is widespread disaffection among the population in and around Beni, who believe, on the whole, that they have been neglected and shortchanged by the central government in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Flush with new, foreign cash, the ADF has been literally buying the people's loyalty with simple but valuable gifts such as new bicycles.

Congo's government has not mounted effective actions against the ADF but, rather, just a series of individual firefights with no apparent organizing principle or strategy. A Western journalist noted that government forces, "will come in, handle fighting, declare their victory and go home. At this point the rebels move back in again... and the villagers are punished as a whole,"

All of which is to say that there is no good omen for this part of Bishop Gabriel's episcopal area. To respond to his plea, Bishop McAlilly writes,
If you wish to offer any financial assistance for the current crisis he describes, please send to your conference treasurer for “Bishop Unda SOS.” 
I am sending a donation and I hope you will, too. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Silly atheist quotes

Such as from Morgan Freeman:

Which reminds me of the conversation I had one time with a self-proclaimed atheist. He insisted that there was no evidence for God.

"What about the universe?" I asked. "Does the universe count as evidence?"

"Of course not," he answered.

"Then you are asking for evidence that would be greater than the universe. What exactly would that be?"

Sound of crickets chirping . . .

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Call to Worship

We gather to celebrate anew the advent of our Savior in our world.
We welcome the Christ with great gladness!
Let the Lord enter again into our lives and shape our souls to his likeness.
In the Nativity God was made flesh and became one in whom we place our whole trust.
For our Lord was born of a woman as we are and was adopted by her husband into the family of humankind.
In that manner, we are born again by God’s Spirit and are adopted by God into his family.
We thank our redeeming God for that Marvelous Exchange!
We pledge in our worship to be reborn in his image. We promise in our Christmas to keep Christ in us. We vow in our lives to be his presence in this world.
We keep Christ in this Christmas, remembering with gladness the reason for this day!
We shall keep Christ from this Nativity day until the next, remembering with thankfulness that we are his body in this world. Come, holy Jesus, come, and dwell with us!

Jesus, the evidence

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Whaddya know, the Bible is right about sex and marriage after all

On The Liberal Marriage Hypothesis -

But when you look specifically at sex itself, at patterns of actual sexual activity and their link to marital happiness and longevity, direct evidence for a permissiveness premium is extremely hard to find. And for women, almost all the the data points sharply in the opposite direction. Notwithstanding the potential for regrets, women who only had sex with their future spouse are more likely to be in a high quality marriage than women who had a higher number of sexual partners. Divorce rates are higher for women with multiple premarital partners than women who had only one; they’retwice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband. Independent of marriage, relationship stability is stronger when sex is initiated later, and monogamy and a restricted number of sex partners isstrongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period. And these results hold irrespective of education levels, as this piece by Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger points out: There’s a stronger correlation between multiple premarital partners and marital instability among less-educated Americans, but well-educated Americans, too, show much stronger marital outcomes when they have fewer premarital partners. (And interestingly, the usual connection between education and stability disappears entirely for people who married their first partner: They’re equally unlikely to divorce no matter whether they attended college or not.)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Unbroken - a review

My wife and I went to see the upcoming movie, Unbroken, Thursday evening at an advance showing for pastors, and they even comped the tix. The movie is due to open nationally on Dec. 25.

That the story here is true is remarkable. It is simply a stunning piece of work with no unneeded scenes nor a word of unnecessary dialogue. It will hold your attention every moment. The movie is not overtly religious; title character Louis Zamperini, though raised in a Catholic household, considered himself not to have become a Christian until a few years after the war. (The movie ends with his release from captivity.)

That the movie has no "star" (no major actor-celebrity) and uses actual Japanese actors even for the worst characters (rather than Asian-descended Hollywood pretenders) makes the movie more compelling. The actor playing Zamperini is a Brit. The actor playing "The Bird," a Japanese POW camp commander of shocking brutality, is Japanese pop-artist musician Takamasa Ishihara, who performs under the name of Miyavi. None of these actors are much known the the United States, and the movie is, IMO, all the better for it.

The screenplay is by the Coen brothers and the film was directed by Angelina Jolie. To their credit, they do not shrink from portraying the awful brutality of the Japanese camps. (One percent of American POWs held by the Germans in World War 2 died in captivity. Of Americans held by the Japanese, 40 percent died.) However, the scenes are not bloody.

This is simply an amazing piece of cinema for which I give you my unqualified recommendation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Harvard Prof: If you take away religion, you can't hire enough police

Harvard Business Professor Clay Christensen on the relationship between religion and democracy: "If you take away religion, you can't hire enough police."

A lesson he says he learned from a Marxist Chinese visiting professor.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Astronomers: Alignment of quasars is "spooky"

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), "formally the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere; Observatoire europĂ©en austral in French) is a 15-nation intergovernmental research organisation for astronomy. Created in 1962, ESO has provided astronomers with state-of-the-art research facilities and access to the southern sky."

Two weeks ago the ESO published a very technical paper about quasars' alignment across the universe which its news release called "spooky" since there is less than a one percent chance the alignments are the result simply of chance.  

Quasars (short for "quasi-stellar objects") are are supermassive black holes in the center of their host galaxies. "These black holes are surrounded by spinning discs of extremely hot material that is often spewed out in long jets along their axes of rotation. Quasars can shine more brightly than all the stars in the rest of their host galaxies put together."

The ESO studied 93 quasars "that were known to form huge groupings spread over billions of light-years, seen at a time when the Universe was about one third of its current age." 
The first odd thing we noticed was that some of the quasars’ rotation axes were aligned with each other — despite the fact that these quasars are separated by billions of light-years,” said HutsemĂ©kers. 
The team then went further and looked to see if the rotation axes were linked, not just to each other, but also to the structure of the Universe on large scales at that time. 
When astronomers look at the distribution of galaxies on scales of billions of light-years they find that they are not evenly distributed. They form a cosmic web of filaments and clumps around huge voids where galaxies are scarce. This intriguing and beautiful arrangement of material is known as large-scale structure. 
The new VLT results indicate that the rotation axes of the quasars tend to be parallel to the large-scale structures in which they find themselves. So, if the quasars are in a long filament then the spins of the central black holes will point along the filament. The researchers estimate that the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1%.  ...
The alignments in the new data, on scales even bigger than current predictions from simulations, may be a hint that there is a missing ingredient in our current models of the cosmos,” concludes Dominique Sluse.
"... the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1%." 

Which means, apparently, that there is a 99 percent chance that the alignment is deliberately contrived. Now how could that be?

Scientist Robert Griffiths, winner of the Heinemann Prize in mathematical physics, once told an interviewer, "If we need an atheist for a debate, we go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn't much use."

And so:
"The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Psalm 19.1 
 The ESO's news release is,"Spooky Alignment of Quasars Across Billions of Light-years"

The technical paper is, "Alignment of quasar polarizations with large-scale structures."

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I love the smell of greens on Advent Sunday mornings

Mark 1.1:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 
Work with me here:

"Good news" was a common expression in the ancient world. Most often was used in military contexts, to report victory in battle. When a general or emperor was told there was "good news," they immediately knew the army had won.
But "good news" was also used to describe important events in the lives of the top people of the Roman empire. For example, the birthday of Caesar Augustus was always announced as, "good news for the world," since Caesar was ruler of the world known to them at the time. 
The ancient term "good news" was always plural. The good news of Augustus's birthday was the announcement of one good tiding among others. But Mark uses "good news" in the singular, making sure his readers knew that the advent of Jesus in the world was not simply one fine thing among many good things. It is a stupendous, exceptional event that is unique and unequaled.
This rhetorical device was intended to evoke a belief and understanding in the minds of the hearers of the Gospel. It was intended to make them perk up and take notice.
One way to understand the meaning of Mark's word is this:
"The beginning of the victory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
"Christ" is Greek for, "anointed one." But the Greeks didn't use the word in association with their gods whom they believed lived on Mount Olympus. So Jesus the anointed one, the Son of God, would not have made much sense to a Greek.
However, in the Old Testament there are references to the priests being anointed, repetitive references to kings of Israel being anointed, and also some prophets. There is even a description in Isaiah of the Persian King Cyrus being anointed. In most of these contexts, the anointed one is described as one to whom God gives victory.

"The beginning of the victory of Jesus the Triumphant, Anointed One of God, the Son of God."
I think that gets more accurately to the sense of what Mark was trying to convey.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Is it time for Horus to ruin Christmas yet?

Soon I suppose we will once again hear how the narrative of Jesus' birth (and death and resurrection) was all stolen from existing pagan mythologies.

Get ready for Horus to drop in this season!

"We should not be surprised when people reject proof of Christ's resurrection in favor of demonstrable lies that let them remain in unbelief."

For a more scholarly presentation, here is Dr. William Lane Craig:

As it turns out, those pre-Christian deities aren’t much like Jesus after all. And in many cases, they are not pre-Christian at all. Skeptics of Christian faith say that the story of Jesus is not much different from scores of pagan religious stories about savior figures.

However, experts in the field are not making this claim. Professor Norman Geisler of Loyola University explains, “No Greek or Roman myth spoke of a literal incarnation of a monotheistic God into human form by way of a literal virgin birth, followed by his death and physical resurrection.” Furthermore, “Most of the evidence for the alleged similarities from the pagan myths date between the second to fourth centuries,” long after the New Testament had been written.

Nor were such stories very common at all. Only about fifteen such ancient stories are identified by claimants. British scholar Norman Anderson argues,
The basic difference between Christianity and the mysteries is the historic basis of one and the mythological character of the others. The deities of the mysteries were no more than ‘nebulous figures of an imaginary past,’ while the Christ whom the [apostles] proclaimed had lived and died only a few years before the first New Testament documents were written.
As Peter told the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, you know this Jesus of whom I speak. Peter was not referring to a mythical figure of a hazy, distant past, but one whom his hearers had known personally.

Furthermore, “Most of the evidence for the alleged similarities from the pagan myths date between the second to fourth centuries,” [link] long after the New Testament had been written. If anything, most of those ancient myths are likely based on Jesus rather than the other way round.

See also,
Those Pre-Christian Deities Aren’t Much Like Jesus After All

Reasons to disbelieve that Jesus rose from the dead

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Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...