Books

Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

RACHAEL’S  QUESTION:

Luke addressed the books of Luke and Acts to Theophilus, but who is he?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Theophilus is a very important person in the New Testament, yet we know next to nothing about him.  If, that is, he was an actual person at all rather than some sort of symbol.  The only information 1st Century history has to offer comes in the introductions to two biblical books:

* “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed . . .” (Luke 1:3-4)

This is the only one of the four Gospels with this sort of dedication.

* “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).

These two mentions of Theophilus are a major reason for experts’ consensus that Luke and Acts are linked as volumes 1 and 2 and almost certainly the work of the same author, a view supported by similarities of style and thought.  

Who was that writer?

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A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

It happens almost every year during the week before Christmas.

Someone sends an email to a list of friends (usually veteran parents and grandparents), or posts an item on Facebook that raises this old question: Is anyone else getting uncomfortable with the whole Santa drama?

There is always a second question that flows naturally out of that: What is the purpose of this elaborate and dramatic lie? What are we trying to teach our children by doing this and what do we say to them once the charade is up? After all, in families with many children the old ones have to help sustain the lie for the little folks.

A confession from me: My wife and I, even before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, decided -- primarily based on my work in mass-media studies, with a lot of reading about advertising -- to skip Santa Claus and tell our children that St. Nicholas of Myra -- as in the 4th-century bishop -- was a real person. The also noted that people have long honored him on his feast day (Dec. 6th on the Gregorian calendar) with gift-giving traditions that eventually, in culture after culture, morphed into something else. We told them not to play that game with other kids, but not to mock them or, well, tell them the truth, either. The key: In our faith, saints are real.

Journalists, if this subject interests you -- especially the secular, materialistic side of this equation -- then you should read and file an essay at The Atlantic by Megan Garber that ran with the loaded headline:

Spoiler: Santa Claus and the Invention of Childhood
How St. Nick went from “beloved icon” to “beloved lie”

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Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?

Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?

JOHN (the perfect name for this question) ASKS

I thought the John of Revelation was the Beloved Disciple. The sermon today tried to disabuse me of that notion. What do we know about this?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: 

One cherished Christmas tradition is dramatic presentation of the story of Jesus via Handel’s “Messiah,” the most-beloved, most-performed musical setting of Bible verses ever composed.  This 1742 oratorio concludes with a stirring chorus taken from the Book of Revelation 5:9,12-14 in the King James Version:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing…. Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever…. Amen.”

Who received this book’s elaborate vision and wrote it down? That’s among many mysteries about Revelation, a.k.a. the Apocalypse, along with what its many lurid symbols mean, and whether it addresses 1st Century persecution, church struggles throughout history, future culmination in the end times, or some combination. The early church, especially in the East, was reluctant and late in deciding this unusual book belonged in the New Testament.

The text names the writer as a “John” who lived on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) due to “tribulation” and testimony to Jesus Christ, indicating he was in forced exile. There is early and strong tradition that this was John, the “beloved” apostle among the Twelve chosen by Jesus, though the text doesn’t say so.

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Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

Holy Screwtape! Young C.S. Lewis secretly worked with MI6?

I don't know about you, but for years now I have grown increasingly skeptical about a lot of the books and other products that continue to roll out from the publishing industry that surrounds the life and work of the great Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Don't get me wrong. I have an entire room of my house that, basically, is dedicated to Eastern Orthodox icons, my family and C.S. Lewis. My son's middle name is "Lewis" and we almost used "Jack" as his first name. I read "The Great Divorce" every year during Lent.

But, honestly, it's almost like we've reached the point where people would publish an annotated edition of this man's grocery lists, should they become available. There are still fine books being published about the Narnian, but I've grown more skeptical about some of work produced by the C.S. Lewis industrial complex.

And then someone comes up with an interesting twist in the life of Lewis. In this case, Christianity Today has just published an online essay -- by scholar Harry Lee Poe of Union University here in Tennessee -- that is a bit of a news scoop. It argues that, while no one is claiming Lewis ever ran around with a gun and a decoder ring, the young Oxford don appears to have done some work for MI6, as in Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Yes, you read that right. This kind of adds a new layer of meaning to discussions of an "Inner Ring" and talk about devilish high-ranking agents working with case officers to snare souls. Here is how it starts:

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This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

The atheist liberation movement of recent years has featured efforts to explain away the global prevalence of religion as totally the result of social forces that perhaps got imprinted into humanity’s evolutionary biology.

The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.

The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Religion newswriters are well aware that those aggressive “New Atheists” sometimes suggest faith is not just stupid but morally evil or a sort of mental illness, such that parents should be forbidden to infect their own children with it. Journalists may be surprised to learn that for LeDrew and others, this sort of anti-religion thinking is outdated and “utterly out of sync with contemporary social science.”

Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”

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Big picture: How can religious traditionalists shift strategies in cultural conflicts?

 Big picture: How can religious traditionalists shift strategies in cultural conflicts?

Big picture, it would be hard to over-state the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage upon believers who uphold longstanding religious tradition. The resulting soul-searching is a theme worth careful journalistic treatment going forward.

One fruitful avenue would be seeking reactions from prime sources to three future options proposed by a package of articles in the current issue of Christianity Today, the influential evangelical monthly.

The cover offers a degree of optimism: “Have No Fear: How to Flourish in a Time of Cultural Weakness.”

That’s the tone of the lead article by two authors better known for politics than religion, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Both were speechwriters and then top policy advisors in the George W. Bush White House. Armed with a foundation grant, they interviewed many evangelical writers, academicians and non-profit leaders, with varied reactions, then drew their own conclusions.

Gerson and Wehner scan history, noting how rarely authentic Christians have exercised full political power. Key quote: “When Christians find themselves on the losing side of Supreme Court decisions, it isn’t cause for despair. Nor does it preclude them from doing extraordinary things.”

Realistically, they say, believers must simply adjust to a world of same-sex marriage. Any bids to reverse this culture shift “will be spectacularly unsuccessful.” But “this does not mean they have to endorse gay marriage.” Traditionalists must remain vigilant in protecting “vital religious liberty,” which is a mark of the healthy society.

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Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

I admit that I have been biting my tongue during the post-Synod 2015 firestorm about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and the large army of liberal Catholic academics who have expressed their displeasure that such a theological lightweight has been allowed to comment on the Catholic faith in the world's most influential op-ed space.

Surely readers will join me in being shocked, shocked that a Times columnist has published controversial commentary about the Catholic Church. Can I get an "Amen"?

I mean, this is the same editorial setting in which a columnist named Bill Keller -- a few months after 9/11 -- compared the Catholic leadership, in the era of Pope St. John Paul II, with al-Qaeda. Readers may, or may not, recall the outcry from Catholic progressives in the wake of these words from Keller's May 4, 2002, column entitled "Is the Pope Catholic?"

What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. ... But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).
The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.

So what happened to Keller after that theological outburst? A year later he was named executive editor of the Times.

Back to Douthat and his theological commentary about Pope Francis and the 2015 Synod of Bishops. You see, there is a journalistic issue here that affects reporters covering hard news events and trends, as well as commentary writers who are free to write their own opinions.

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Define 'agnostic,' please; does it take faith to be one?

Define 'agnostic,' please; does it take faith to be one?

LISA’S QUESTION:

What does it mean to be agnostic?  Are there people who actually consider it to be a religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In Pew Research’s much-mulled 2014 religion poll of 35,000 U.S. adults, 3.1 percent defined themselves as “atheists” (compared with 1.6 percent in a similar 2007 survey) while a somewhat larger faction of 4 percent called themselves “agnostics” (versus 2.4 percent in 2007). Pew grabbed headlines by combining them with the far larger numbers who said their faith was “nothing in particular” and concluding that 22.8 percent of Americans are now religiously “unaffiliated” compared with only 16.1 percent seven years earlier.

The agnostic term was coined in 1869 by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a noted advocate of Darwin’s evolution theory, to distinguish his own doubts from outright atheism. Darwin soon embraced that label for himself. So did a popular U.S. performer of that era, the touring anti-religion lecturer Robert Ingersoll. However, the agnostic outlook was nothing new. This sort of skepticism was found among some thinkers in ancient Greece and India as far back as the centuries B.C.

No doubt (so to speak) the line between agnosticism and atheism can be confusing, but it was well and clearly defined by the great British mathematician Bertrand Russell, a critic of Christianity, in his essay “What Is An Agnostic?”:

“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

Are agnostics atheists? No.

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Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

As Pope Francis-mania rolls into its final hours in the Acela zone, The National Catholic Register -- part of the Eternal Word Television Network operation -- has tossed a genuinely unsettling story into the news mix, along with its stack of glowing papal news reports. This shocker contains one or two crucial facts that cannot be denied, yet ultimately stands on the word of one very controversial cardinal.

The problem is that this cardinal has very little incentive, at this moment in time, to making an outrageous claim -- that he was part of an organized coup that all but forced Pope Benedict XVI to resign. The goal of the coup was to elect the man who became Pope Francis.

So, we have one of those "Got news?" stories that jumps straight into, you got it, conservative social media and news -- alone. The question is whether a similar story linked to a less popular pope would have, because of the timing, received major play in the American mainstream press. 

Here's the top of the National Catholic Register report by Edward Pentin, which apparently echoes coverage in La Stampa in the Italy. Read carefully. You are looking for the one word, and one word alone, that should matter to mainstream reporters evaluating this material:

Further serious concerns are being raised about Cardinal Godfried Danneels, one of the papal delegates chosen to attend the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family, after the archbishop emeritus of Brussels confessed this week to being part of a radical "mafia" reformist group opposed to Benedict XVI.
It was also revealed this week that he once wrote a letter to the Belgium government favoring same-sex "marriage" legislation because it ended discrimination against LGBT groups.

A quick comment: Passive voice in two straight paragraphs is NOT how a reporter builds credibility with savvy readers. But read on:

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