Kings of the Promised Land: A Novel

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KINGS WILL FALL. OUTCASTS WILL RISE.

The Priesthood is in disarray. The House of God has been dismantled. The scattered Twelve Tribes are surrounded on all sides by stronger, more technologically advanced enemies, ready to invade. Will the Chosen People be “wiped off the map?” In this epic tale of faith-based historical fiction, the fate of a nation hangs in the balance as three men struggle for the soul of ancient, Iron Age Yisra’el.

Shemu’el: the wise and respected Seer finds himself at odds with the will of the people. They want to replace the rule of Yahweh with the rule of man.

Sha’ul: the strong and handsome first King of Yisra’el. Hailed a savior and unifier of the nation, can the King overcome the temptations of absolute power or will he fall into darkness?

David: the young shepherd who becomes a legendary Hero, betrothed to the princess. But with great success comes many enemies, and the warrior-poet soon finds himself in a desperate fight for survival.

What readers are saying about Kings of the Promised Land:

“I actually felt as if these events were unfolding right before me.”

“Tolkien-esque.”

“A Judeo-Christian Game of Thrones.”

“Makes the scarlet thread that weaves all scripture together come alive for me!”

“A masculine work of Biblical fiction.”

Order it now on Amazon or for Kindle

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Flatland, Fez, and M-theory

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Written by Edwin A. Abbott in 1884, ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’ is an excellent, laugh-out-loud satirical novel that provokes deep thought about dimensions beyond our daily experience. You think ‘The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’ is good allegory? Fuhgeddaboudit! I think Flatland should be required reading for all Christians.

Now, if Flatland existed in video game form, ‘Fez’ would be it. Fez stars a pale protagonist who has the amazing powers to walk, jump, climb, go through doorways, swim, and pick up small objects! A lot like us, actually. One day, this simple-living character has his perspective radically expanded. Something dimensionally beyond himself impinges upon his 2D universe. He can now perceive a much more complex reality, and one that is in peril.

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I have written before in brief about Kierkegaard’s concept of ‘dimensional beyondness.’ God, as an infinite being, is qualitatively different than anything within the created cosmos. But where does the cosmos end and the supernatural realm begin – the realm of spirit which is invisible to our unaided senses? In Brian Greene’s popular book on theoretical physics, ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos,’ Greene references a version of superstring theory called ‘M-theory,’ which hypothesizes ten space dimensions and one time dimension (we commonly experience three space dimensions and one, forward-moving time dimension). If this is true, at what level of “physical” reality do we find Christ holding “all things together?” (Colossians 1:17).

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Back to Fez – I do not believe that video game creator Phil Fish is a Christian – at least not based on what I saw in ‘Indie Game: The Movie.’ Fez certainly does not get into deep theological territory, but is pleasantly stimulating aesthetically, philosophically, and is fun to play. It is also rife with mind-bending puzzles that you may never, ever unravel – much like the universe itself! I recommend playing it right after you read Flatland.

So says a Fez NPC, “My favorite shape is a square. Not a cube – those don’t exist!”

Top 15 Christian Rock Songs

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In alphabetical order, here is my current list of the 15 greatest Christian Rock songs of all time. Get your Spotify playlist ready! Let me know what songs I’ve missed in the comments section.

All the Poor and Powerless (The Digital Age)

Beautiful Things (Gungor)

Brother (NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw)

Burn Like a Star (Rend Collective)

Economy (John Mark McMillan)

Hands In The Air (The Waiting)

I Can See Your Love (Leeland)

Lead Me to the Cross (Hillsong United)

Lost the Plot (Newsboys)

Love at the End (John Mark McMillan)

Manifesto (The City Harmonic)

Ocean Floor (Audio Adrenaline)

Opposite Way (Leeland)

Skeleton Bones (John Mark McMillan)

Take The World, But Give Me Jesus (Ascend The Hill)

And a special bonus song:

Church Clap (KB)

Maslow, Music, and Self-Transcendence

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I believe that the music of a culture or people group often corresponds to a sort of societal-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stage. Indigenous groups may perform rain dances or sing songs about the harvest, reflecting basic physiological needs. Inner city rap music and some blue collar country music may often speak to concerns about personal safety and financial security (amassing wealth, fighting against those feuding against you). Pop music perpetually hovers around the themes of love and belonging (love at first sight, dating, breaking up, commitment).

Rock music, on the other hand, frequently transcends the basic or lower level needs, and moves from the “deficiency” needs to the “being” needs. Take for example the song ‘Peace of Mind’ by the band Boston. Moving into the Esteem stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, this song explicitly addresses finding meaning and purpose beyond the rat race of everyday life. One may also point to harder edged but socially-conscious songs from bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Now, are there any songs or types of music that address the fifth and final stage, Self-Actualization? Certainly, but I’ll take it a step further. For Christians, Self-Actualization is not the end-all, be-all goal of life. Christ-Actualization (or the Imitation of Christ) is the highest possible stage of human growth, achievement, or needs-meeting. Maslow himself touched on this theme in his later years, criticizing his own theory and proposing a higher stage – Self-Transcendence. Christian music has the inherent potential of reflecting this most important stage.

‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel represents this, not only as one of the highest human achievements of music, but as a Self-Transcending work of art that points to Jesus Christ. Take a couple minutes and enjoy this Hallelujah Chorus performed via flashmob in a mall food court.

The Source of All Truth

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“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” – Jesus Christ

In a discussion over coffee about the compatibility or non-compatibility of Freudian theories of psychoanalysis with Christian belief, a pastor once told me that “All truth is God’s truth.” I have since heard that sentiment expressed by many others. While that statement can indeed only be true, something about it kept nagging me. How exactly are you defining or determining truth? It seemed to me that such a statement could be used to conveniently sidestep the need to do the work – to investigate and actively establish truth on a clear basis.

How do we define truth? What priority do we give to various sources that claim to describe reality accurately? Here are my current thoughts on the subject:

TRUTH

God himself is the source of all truth. The eternal, self-existent God is the ultimate reality. There is no higher being or principle in existence. Everything that is has originated from him (John 1:3). As the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Reality, the great I AM… Yahweh is the very embodiment of truth.

PRIMARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

The Bible, at the very least in its “original autographs” (e.g., the actual scrolls that Moses wrote on, etc.), is a primary source of truth because it accurately testifies about God and records his words. It is direct and purposeful revelation from the all-knowing and truth-telling God. Because God has infinite understanding (Psalm 147:5) and is unable to lie (Titus 1:2), we can fully trust everything that he says. We can trust that what he says is accurately recorded in scripture because all scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and prophecy was made by men “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Further, we are told that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Jesus himself quoted and affirmed scripture on many occasions.

The Bible itself is not the ultimate reality, nor does it describe everything that exists in reality. Truth existed for a presumably infinite period of time before the Bible was written. However, as Christians we can and must trust in the whole counsel of scripture (Acts 20:27).

The Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Truth which can lead us into all truth (John 16:13). A word from the Holy Spirit to an individual can thus also be a primary source of truth, albeit subjective. Well, let me clarify. A word from the Holy Spirit is open to subjective interpretation – it is personal, and not normative for all believers. The Bible tells us that there are other spirits that speak (1 John 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:1). We must always compare what we believe the Spirit to be revealing to us with the witness of scripture, which is a much more standardized and objective primary source of truth.

SECONDARY AND TERTIARY SOURCES OF TRUTH

Apart from the Bible, which is ‘special revelation,’ general revelation can be found in three main sources: “nature, history, and the constitution of the human being” (Erickson 1998, 179). However, this form of truth requires the application of human reason and investigation. As humans are finite and flawed, such deductions and conclusions cannot be held with the same regard as primary truth. Generalizations from revealed biblical truth, if theologically rigorous, may be a form of secondary truth. Deductions and conclusions from the three sources of general revelation that do not coincide with a Christian worldview may be no better than tertiary sources of truth, or may be completely false and unreliable.

The Theology of Pokemon

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Back in 1998, Pokemon promised to be a unique hybrid of RPG / Virtual Pet gameplay. Tamagotchi? Digimon? Eat your pixelated hearts out. On the heels of the original games came sequels, spin offs, anime, a collectible card game, and much more – all the way through the present day communal walking-and-flicking Pokemon Go craze.

On the spiritual side of things, the nascent series of 1998 seemed fairly innocuous. Yes, there were a handful of ‘ghost’ and ‘psychic’ and ‘dragon’ type Pokemon adding some para-psychological / occult elements, but for the most part you were collecting and fighting with anthropomorphic radishes, giant butterflies, and Rip Van Winkle-inspired giant panda bear thingies.

There were in-game rumors that Pokemon originated on the moon. I suppose some proponents of Intelligent Design may have chafed at the evolution mechanic… Still, subsequent versions have muddied the theological waters of the Pokemon franchise. Pokemon Gold and Silver introduced ‘dark’ Pokemon (demonic?) and the newest incarnation has added ‘fairy’ type. However, the lowest point in the series is the introduction of the absurd Pokemon God in Diamond and Pearl.

According to the source of all some knowledge, Wikipedia, Arceus “shaped the universe with its thousand arms.” It was born “from an egg in a vortex of pure chaos before the existence of the universe” and went on to form other deity-esque lifeforms. More ridiculous, you can capture this “god” and carry it around in your pocket in a Pokeball, summoning it to battle in glorified cock-fights for your enjoyment!

Actually, the God of Pokemon has very much in common with the gods of most religions and mythologies throughout human history except for the One True God of Judeo-Christian belief. Pantheistic and other belief systems have the same basic starting point of gods arising from primordial chaos or some pre-existent cosmic battle. The Judeo-Christian God alone stands completely and utterly transcendent and independent of all created matter and the universe that contains it. God, as an infinite being, has always existed. He did not emerge from any pre-existing matter, form, force, or intelligence. And, you cannot capture him in a Pokeball.

On Revelation – Apocalypse Now

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The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.

Why Christianity?

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In a previous post I discussed how I had arrived at subjective certainty about the existence of God. But in the grand cosmological buffet, there are many “higher powers” that one can choose from: Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, and even the Flying Spaghetti Monster embraced by oppositional-ironic “pastafarians.” How did I personally become convinced that the Christian God, attested to in the Old and New Testaments, is the “One True God” – the interpretation of the Divine that corresponds to reality?

1. To start, there is no denying that my upbringing plays a crucial role. I was raised in a Christian home. But what does that mean? Many who were raised in a “Christian” home and/or grew up “in the Church” have turned away from the Christian religion. And others that have had no exposure to Christianity as children come to believe in the Christian interpretation of God. I must say that I viewed the early Christian influences in my life as trustworthy sources, people who non-hypocritically lived out their faith on a daily basis. Their personal lives and behavior did not contradict what they taught or believed – quite the opposite. I had every reason to believe what they were saying when they testified about supernatural experiences.

2. God most profoundly revealed himself to me during a Christian church service, through a scripture found in the Christian Bible, presented by a Christian pastor. Despite the historical, contextually-bound logos of that passage of scripture, I was directly and personally spoken to as through a rhema. My life dramatically began a process of transformation from that moment. I often have described this experience as an “epiphany,” and it may be compared to the concept of enlightenment or a spiritual awakening. Christians would commonly use vocabulary to describe such an experience as “being born again” or “salvation” or “regeneration.”

3. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit continues to affirm the central truths of Christianity and thus further bolsters my faith. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16) and, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26).

4. The Christian worldview, as expressed (non-systematically) in the Bible, presents a framework for consistently, accurately, and without-contradiction interpreting all of reality, including the existence of and belief in other so-called gods. Christianity accounts for and explains the existence of other religions and even for non-religious persons. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality — and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.”

5. Various forms of revelation: ongoing personal experiences, the testimony of trustworthy individuals, and historical evidence all lend additional support to Christianity. The common, shared experiences of Christians around the planet and throughout history attested to in diaries, letters, biographies, sermons, verbal exchanges, and more, provide further grounding. I will seek to address the nature of revelation more in depth in future posts.

When Mental Hospitals Resemble Jails

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A friend recently forwarded me this article from The Atlantic, arguing how the Cook County Jail in Chicago could be considered the “largest mental-health facility” in America due to the high percentage of inmates who have received or are eligible to receive mental illness diagnoses, as well as the massive size of the jail itself. The article examines the appropriateness or lack thereof of such an arrangement, mentioning an added layer of mental health screening, jail diversion options, and the admirable amount of “advanced mental health training” that the prison staff receives.

What immediately came to mind for me was not how jails can sometimes resemble mental health treatment centers, but how mental health treatment centers can come to resemble jails. I will share a true anecdote from a psychiatric hospital in a certain city in a certain Southern state in the United States. Without revealing too much, I will say that this particular state received a D grade for mental health treatment from NAMI in 2009.

The sad tale: An older woman of Asian descent, having immigrated with her family to America decades ago, receives regular government disability checks. Her physically and emotionally abusive father and sister demand that she turn this income over to them. If she refuses, they retaliate by having her committed to a hospital for being “crazy.” She is placed on a geriatric unit with older, far less functional individuals with dementia – many of them sleep through the day on heavy medication cocktails or are even placed in restraint chairs. Because English is not this patient’s first language, she has difficulty communicating her needs and story to the nurses and psych techs, and they often dismiss her as an annoyance. A rotation of fly-by-night psychiatrists have pressured this woman into receiving electric-shock therapy, a procedure that she hardly understands and instantly regrets. She complains of shooting pain throughout her entire body that makes it hard for her to sleep in the days afterward. Her involuntarily commitment order has long expired, and so has a follow-up legal request to hold her against her will. The doctors, nurses, psych techs, and social workers are ignorant of the actual legal steps to extend a legal hold, and no effort has been made to provide legal representation, or to inform the patient of her rights. She waits in an illegal, unethical state of limbo for over a month as she continues to receive pressure to conform to invasive and harmful procedures from medical staff that know almost nothing about her. Nobody cares. Nobody takes action. The facility never faces a single consequence. When insurance stops paying, the patient is discharged back to the home of family members who steal her money and beat her.