Justin Bieber's Jesus tattoo: why in his armpit?

Justin Bieber's Jesus tattooTeen idol and professing Christian Justin Bieber has a new tattoo, it is reported, and the tattoo reads יֵשׁוּעַ, i.e. the name “Jesus” in Hebrew. At least it should read that if correctly spelled, which it is not in the text superimposed on the image I reproduce here.

This image is allegedly of part of Bieber’s body. But I had trouble finding the supposed “Jesus” tattoo. The mark to the right of Bieber’s navel is presumably the seagull tattoo mentioned in a Los Angeles Times article. But where is the new tattoo? Apparently it is what is just visible in the image underneath the armpit.

What message, I wonder, is 17-year-old Bieber trying to put across by having the name of Jesus written on one of the most hidden and smelliest parts of his body? In an interview last November he clearly stated:

I’m a Christian, I believe in God, I believe that Jesus died on a cross for my sins. I believe that I have a relationship and I’m able to talk to him and really, he’s the reason I’m here …

So perhaps he intends to honour Jesus by having his name tattooed on his armpit. But I can understand some thinking that in fact he intends to ridicule the name by his choice of where on his body he had the tattoo done.

Here in the UK he would not be allowed to get a tattoo, as he is under 18. The law sensibly protects minors from having their bodies disfigured in ways they might regret in adulthood. Unfortunately Bieber, a Canadian who is said to have had his latest tattoo done in Israel, has not benefited from this protection. But from this point of view it is perhaps for the best that the tattoo is in an easily hidden place.

This time it is not Joel Watts but his co-blogger Gez who is the author of the post at Unsettled Christianity where I found this news, The new Bieber Jesus tattoo. No doubt they have chosen this topic in an effort to lift their end of the month Alexa ratings enough to dethrone Jim West from his #1 Biblioblogger spot. So I offer this post to support their effort – and hoping it won’t do my own ranking any harm. Anyway I am following in a venerable tradition of bibliobloggers such as John Hobbins and David Ker posting about celebrity tattoos.

CORRECTION: The correct Hebrew spelling for the name “Jesus” is not יְשׁוּעַ as I wrote at first, but יֵשׁוּעַ, i.e. with the sign for a long “e” (tsere) rather than a short one (sheva) under the initial consonant. Both are pronounced “Yeshua”. Bieber’s tattoo artist presumably didn’t know which to use, as he seems to have omitted this vowel sign completely.



Arminians are not deists, we believe prayer works

Adrian WarnockAdrian Warnock has written an interesting post asking Are you an Arminian on your knees and a Calvinist on your feet? The point I think he is trying to make is an important one: Do we believe God will answer our prayers? But it is unfortunate that in making it Adrian perpetuates a caricature of Arminianism which has nothing to do with what was believed and taught by Arminius, by other famous Arminians of the past like John Wesley, and by at least the majority of today’s evangelical Arminians.

To be fair, Adrian realises what he is doing, for he writes:

Now, to my Arminian friends please don’t hear me wrongly. For this blog post to work we have to accept a bit of a stereotype on both ends of the spectrum.

The problem is that not everyone will accept this. I really don’t think it is helpful to misrepresent other people’s theological position for the sake of a nice soundbite or post title, even with a disclaimer like this one. Bearing false witness is still wrong if you say it wasn’t meant seriously.

Adrian’s error seems to be based on a tweet he quotes from Mark Driscoll:

Every Christian who prays is functionally a Calvinist who believes in the sovereignty of God.

I’m sorry, Mark and Adrian, but that is complete nonsense. Indeed Adrian seems to recognise this when he writes:

I know that most Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty.

Now I don’t take the line, mentioned by Adrian, about how

a Calvinist is rumored to pray…ie not at all because he just leaves everything to the sovereignty of God.

But there is as much truth in that slur as there is in Driscoll’s implication that Arminians don’t pray, or that they are hypocritical when they do.

Driscoll’s, and Adrian’s, error is to confuse God’s activity with his sovereignty. It is possible to believe that God works powerfully in the world today, in answer to prayer, without believing as Calvinists do that God predestines every detail of what happens. God can be an actor within the world that he has created without being the puppet-master who pulls all the strings.

Adrian seems to write as if Arminianism is equivalent to deism, the position that God does nothing in the world in the present age. It certainly is not equivalent. Many who believe that God is very closely involved in the world today, in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and in working miracles, are Arminians – and it is as Arminians that they pray for these miracles and see them happening.

Now I accept that there are things which consistent Arminians will not pray for in confidence that God will answer them. These are things which God could only make happen by violating human free will. Foremost among these is that God cannot make any individual become a Christian. So consistent Arminians are more likely to pray that God opens someone’s eyes so that they can see his truth – at which point that person can make their own informed decision about their eternal destiny.

But Adrian seems to imply that Arminians pray like deists. That is, when they pray they don’t believe God actually does anything in response to prayer.

Now there are indeed many people who pray like that. Some of them would be liberal Christians, who might say that the only point of praying is to make oneself feel better, and might also call themselves Arminians. Others would be Bible Deists, as Jack Deere wrote that he used to be, who don’t believe that God does anything real and verifiable in the world today, but acts only in invisible spiritual ways – perhaps rather like Harold Camping’s invisible spiritual judgment day! And I suspect quite a few of these Bible Deists would call themselves Calvinists, and argue that God doesn’t answer prayer today because that would mean him changing plans which were set in stone before the foundation of the world. Now that may be a caricature of Calvinism, but there is surely enough truth in it to show that deism is not the same thing as Arminianism.

Chris Fenstermaker is wise in writing, in a comment on Adrian’s post,

I’ve learned that our praying is not as much “changing God’s mind”…but rather aligning our spirit with what God is already doing.

Indeed that is an important aspect of prayer. But it should not be taken as implying a Calvinist understanding that God’s mind was made up long ago, and the only point of prayer is to find out what God is going to do anyway and then pray for it to happen. That would be about as pointless as praying that the sun will rise in the morning – and then claiming that God has answered our prayers when it does.

I can only conclude that Adrian and indeed most other Calvinists have rejected Arminianism because they have completely misunderstood it. But I also have to agree with John Charles Brown in another comment on Adrian’s post:

the greatest hindrance to prayer is not one’s systematic theology but simply neglect.

And on that point I have to plead guilty.

N.T. Wright on Bell's hell and God's love

T.C. Robinson quotes a passage from N.T. Wright (taken from a post by Trevin Wax) in which the bishop emeritus (not I think his formal title) starts by considering the question “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?”, then moves on to discuss Rob Bell’s teaching, presumably taken from his book Love Wins. Here is part of what Wright writes (emphasis added by TCR):

And it seems to be part of [Americans’] faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

Rob BellIndeed. Wright accepts, as I do but Bell seems not to, that ultimately some people do reject God, and so God rejects them. That means that hell, whatever it is, is not completely empty. It doesn’t mean that we know who is going there, or how many they will be.

But Bell’s main point is one which Wright and I would agree with, that God’s love is more powerful than his wrath. Wherever the church paints a different picture from that, of God as “a horrible ogre”, then the good news, the gospel of Christ, is seriously distorted if not lost completely.

No Rapture: Camping apologises, points to 21st October

Harold CampingThanks to Joel for linking to the live blog at Huffington Post of Harold Camping’s broadcast on Family Radio yesterday evening, two days after the failure of his prediction of the Rapture. It must have taken him a lot of courage to face a crowd of hostile journalists in this way, rather than disappearing as I predicted.

When pushed, Camping offered some kind of apology:

After being asked again and again if he will apologize for being wrong about May 21, Camping finally does.

“If people want me to apologize, I will apologize…I did not have all that worked out as accurately as I should have had it. That doesn’t bother me at all.”

Camping reiterates that he still believes Judgment Day came — just quietly.

So now he is predicting that the end will come all at once on 21st October this year:

“It won’t be a five-month terrible difficulty…that we have learned,” said Camping. Instead, he says, the world will end quickly on Oct. 21 without any build up.

As for the predicted earthquakes,

“the great earthquake didn’t happen on May 21 because no one would be able to survive it for a few days or let alone five months to suffer God’s wrath.”

Well, we will see what happens on 21st October, but my prediction is: nothing special.

"Kirk to consider gay ordinations": not me!

Reverend Scott Rennie, a gay minister in AberdeenDon’t misunderstand the headline on the BBC news home page this morning

Kirk to consider gay ordinations

This is nothing to do with me! As is clear from the full title of the linked page, Church of Scotland Assembly to debate gay ordinations, my surname is here being used in its alternative sense as a name, or journalistic abbreviation, for the Church of Scotland.

The word “kirk” is a Scottish and northern English dialect variant of “church”, probably of Viking origin. The place name of Danish origin “Kirkby” or “Kirby” is widely attested in northern England, and in the east as far south as Essex, but only in the half of England which was strongly influenced by Danish invasion and settlement, known as the Danelaw.

The word “kirk” is in fact of Greek origin, from kuriakos meaning “the Lord’s”.

My own Kirk ancestors are not Scottish but from Derbyshire in northern England. I have previously posted here a picture of my ancestral home.

Maybe another time I will consider gay ordinations, but not today.

Judgment Day not yesterday: a post-non-mortem

For yesterday, 21st May, Harold Camping and his associates were predicting not just the Rapture but also worldwide earthquakes and Judgment Day. But nothing special seems to have happened. Yes, there was a landslide in Malaysia, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and a small volcanic eruption in Iceland. But these kinds of disasters, sad though they are for those involved, are everyday occurrences.

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

As far as I can tell from the news, no one has died from anything which could remotely be called an act of God’s judgment, and, despite some apparent photographic evidence, no one has been raptured either. I suppose somewhere in the world someone might have been trampled underfoot or suffered a heart attack because of rapture fever, but I hope not.

Meanwhile the BBC reports this morning that

the evangelist at the centre of the claim, Harold Camping, has not been seen since before the deadline.

This could mean that he has been raptured, or has died at age 89, but more likely that he is keeping a deliberately low profile. The BBC seems to have missed the news item I posted last night, that Camping’s Family Radio colleagues were conceding in advance that they might be wrong.

In the absence of any bodies I can’t really conduct a post-mortem. But I can offer a sort of post-non-mortem on this whole affair. What lessons can it offer for us, as Christians or as interested outsiders?

Firstly, I would say, we should never trust people like Harold Camping who set themselves up as teachers apart from the church as a whole. I’m not saying that such people are always wrong. Sometimes individuals, even ones without formal training like Camping, find truths in the Bible which have been ignored by the church as a whole. That is one reason why the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is important. But this happens rather rarely. So others should treat any such claims with a lot of caution until they have broader confirmation. I’m sorry to say it, but the man who, according to the BBC report, “spent more than $140,000 (£86,000) of his savings on advertisements in the run-up to 21 May” was simply being foolish.

Secondly, we need to remember that Jesus clearly told us that the end would come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. He warned that false prophets and apparent signs would mislead people, as indeed they have repeatedly for 2000 years. It is amazing that so many people who call themselves Christians don’t pay attention to this part of his teaching. Rather, as Jeremy Myers writes, while we should “Live like the world will end tomorrow”, we should also “Ignore all future predictions” and “Plan for the future”.

Thirdly, we need to understand better what the Bible really has to say about the future and the return of Jesus. I don’t want to go into details here. But as I have argued here in the past, I don’t believe that Christians will be raptured in the way that people like Camping teach, before the return of Jesus. Tim Chesterton has helpfully linked to a 2001 essay by N.T. Wright Farewell to the Rapture, in which the former Bishop of Durham explains convincingly why the Second Coming “won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account”: in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

Finally, there are lessons for the church on marketing. The well known secular expert in this field Seth Godin has today offered his marketing lesson from the affair, on his blog which I don’t usually read (thanks to my friend tweeting at Adbolts for the link):

Here’s the simple lesson:

Sell a story that some people want to believe. In fact, sell a story they already believe.

I hope you can dream up something more productive than the end of the world, though.

Yes, Camping and friends have done their marketing well to spread their Rapture fever worldwide. I hope that Christians who have a truly biblical message to proclaim can learn better from this how to proclaim that message, not so much of God’s judgment as of his love, of how

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 3:16 (NIV 2011)

Rapture update 5: Joel was left behind

Joel L. WattsThe Rapture Wave is supposed to have hit the US east coast now, but Joel who claims to have invented that phrase has, despite his own confident predictions, been left behind! How do I know? He is still tweeting, although 6 pm local time has passed in Charleston, West Virginia – but oddly enough no one else I follow has tweeted in the last half hour. The end of Joel’s live video stream looked like he was trying to launch himself into heaven on a swing, but somehow I don’t think that will work. So either Joel was not one of the chosen ones, or else we were all left behind to carry on God’s work, as we should all have wanted.

So, with Joel still with is and even Harold Camping’s closest associates disowning his predictions, we can put this whole sorry story behind us. Normal programmes will resume shortly.

Rapture update 4: Family Radio ready to concede

I hadn’t expected this development, reported by Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register and linked to by Joel, at least not this early. Apparently the staff of Harold Camping’s radio station Family Radio are already accepting that things are not going as planned. Their spokesman Tom Evans has said that

once we reach midnight local time in the holy city of Jerusalem … he will be ready to concede that today’s rapture is a bust.

“If it’s not going to happen then, it’s obviously not going to happen today,” Evans said, “and we were wrong.”

Jerusalem by nightNow midnight in Jerusalem is just over 90 minutes away as I write, and an hour before Camping’s predicted Rapture wave is expected to hit the US east coast. So it seems that Family Radio is prepared to call off their Rapture prediction in advance, as far as North Americans are concerned.

Well, perhaps that is a clever move to preserve at least something of their own credibility, and I suppose their business. But does Harold Camping agree with their position, or are they abandoning him?

Rapture update 3: I'm still here in England

Clock Tower - Palace of Westminster, LondonThe time has now passed for the Rapture, as predicted by Harold Camping, here in England. No earthquakes, no tornadoes, just a normal quiet Saturday, and my wife and I are still here.

I must say I wasn’t too worried that I would be raptured today, against my will, after the non-events in New Zealand, Japan and indeed anywhere to the east of this green and pleasant land.

The only reported event in the Orient today which could even remotely be considered a sign of the Rapture or the allegedly coming Tribulation was a landslide in Malaysia which killed at least eight children and perhaps quite a lot more. This was of course a tragic event of course for those involved. But it was caused by heavy rain, not an earthquake, and it “took place at about 1430 local time” so ahead of Camping’s predicted schedule.

So as the hours move on towards 6 pm in America, first on the East Coast and only later in Camping’s California, my advice to Americans is simple: “Don’t panic!” But just in case you might also want to avoid taking a bath at 6 pm, to avoid embarrassment.

Meanwhile atheist John Loftus has started a meme on My Predictions of the Excuses Harold Camping May Make, and Joel has tagged me, and everyone else who read his post. So here is my prediction: Harold Camping and a small number of his followers will simply disappear, and let the word get out that these few were raptured and no one else was considered worthy. This could actually mean suicide, as I suggested before, but more likely they will find somewhere to hide away and lick their wounds. Most likely Camping, 89, will start an overdue retirement and, once the fuss has died down, never be heard of again.

These kinds of false prophets will be with us until Jesus really comes again, as he predicted. But hopefully it will be some time before any are taken as seriously as Harold Camping seems to have been.

Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity? 1

The Church MouseA few days ago now the Church Mouse, an anonymous Church of England blogger, asked, Is the Bible the best way to promote Christianity in Britain? He suggested this on the basis of a survey which found that

8% considered [the Bible] very important and read the Bible regularly, 46% considered it important but don’t read it regularly, 42% considered it unimportant and 4% considered it dangerous.

These figures seem to refer to Britain, although the exact survey area is unclear. I have no idea how figures in other countries might compare. But the general principles of the Mouse’s post would presumably apply elsewhere, at least in the western world.

The Mouse argued from these figures that

46% of the population see value in engaging with the Bible more than they currently do.

Most evangelistic strategies don’t kick off with the Bible.  It is often seen as a bit difficult, and something you get to later when you’ve got some way down the road.

Perhaps this is wrong.

Eddie Arthur, Executive Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators UK, was quick to comment that many evangelistic strategies do use texts from the Bible. But in his own comment in response the Mouse clarifies his issues with these strategies, that

The way [they] work is to say “Here is Christianity – why not have a look at that, and perhaps even see what the Bible says about it”. The question I’m asking is whether that focus should be switched round completely, and say “Here is the Bible – I wonder what that is about”.

Now of course there are people who present non-Christians with the Bible as an evangelistic strategy. The Gideons are perhaps the best known such group. I remember several mission initiatives in the UK which have included as a major strategy distributing Bible portions, such as John’s Gospel from the Good News Bible. The Bible Society generally prefers to sell their Bibles, at subsidised prices, but the general principle is the same. These groups seem to believe that unbelievers who read the Bible text are likely to become Christians, or at least that reading the Bible can be a significant step on this path. They generally offer little if anything in terms of explanatory notes or reading guides, and make no explicit appeals for Christian commitment.

There are others who argue that this is not a good evangelistic strategy. These people would generally argue that unbelievers cannot and should not try to understand the Bible on their own, but need guidance from others, such as pastors or professors. Although many who argue like this are Protestants who value the inheritance of the Reformation, their arguments often sound remarkably like those of the opponents of the Reformation, and of many Roman Catholics until recently, that the Bible should be handled only by a special class of priests and officially authorised teachers.

Now it is certainly a good thing when a priest, pastor or professor faithfully expounds the Bible. I rejoice that this happens regularly in many (but not all) churches, and in some academic environments. But in other cases these people who are supposed by some to be the gatekeepers for the Bible in fact keep the gate closed for those who hear it, by distorting the teaching of the Bible or by ignoring it.

So I stand with William Tyndale, who famously said to one of those bad gatekeepers

if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!

That is, I stand with the doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture, in other words, that ordinary people can and should be able to understand the basic meaning of the biblical text without having to depend on separate authorities, and without requiring special education. But this post is already rather long, so I will leave a fuller discussion of this doctrine and its implications to part 2.