Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why Tragedy?

  I was debating on what to write for tonight.

  I thought I might do a 2015 "Year in Review" blog, highlighting some of my more interesting moments and encounters within the last year.  I may still do something of the sort next week. But Saturday night, Dec. 26, the corner of Texas where I live was the victim of a horrific outbreak of tornadoes - nine twisters that left eleven people dead, dozens injured, and did tens of millions of dollars in damage.  I inadvertently got a first hand view of the devastation on Sunday, when a missed exit forced me to detour right across the storm's path.  Businesses and homes shattered and scattered, debris everywhere, cars upended and tossed about like children's toys in a tantrum - it was horrifying and humbling to see the raw power of nature destroy the works of men's hands so quickly and completely.

   So where was God in all of this?  How could One who loves us allow such carnage, especially at a time of year when we celebrate His supreme gift to us all?  Why did those eleven people die while others were spared?  Why was one house left standing while its neighbor was leveled to its foundations?

   I don't even pretend to have answers for everything.  I read my Bible, I pray for my friends, and I do what I can to be a good person and a good neighbor to those in need.  But those who reject God always have a field day when events like this roll around - "Where was your God in the midst of the storm?  How could He let this happen?"  The questions come thick and fast, and our answers may sound hollow in the face of human suffering.

   In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was confronted with a similar question.  Here is the story:

   "Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” - Luke 13: 1-5 NASB

   Was Jesus being callous here?  Was he belittling the deaths of these innocents?  Or was He making a profound statement about the existence of man in a fallen world? 

   Whether you regard the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth, mythology, or timeless allegory, it makes a profound statement about the nature of humanity: Death is our lot.  We are mortal creatures living in a fallen and imperfect world.  All of us are given a span of years, and none of us know how long that span will be.  We may say that some are taken "before their time," but that isn't true.  They were taken at their time, or they would not have been taken at all.  We grieve and rage and weep because they were taken before WE were ready for them to go.  Whether someone is killed by a tornado the day after Christmas or dies from the slow ravages of time in a nursing home, the grave is our ultimate fate.  Nothing we can do will change that.

   That's where faith comes in.  Paul told the church at Thessalonica two thousand years ago: "Now I would not have  you ignorant, beloved, concerning them that fall asleep, that ye may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope."  Without faith, the grave is the end of all things.  There is nothing waiting for us beyond, and those we have lost are gone beyond all recovery.  I cannot imagine such a hopeless and benighted philosophy - to think that your entire existence is a cosmic accident devoid of meaning or purpose, that we are nothing but hairless apes produced by a long series of meaningless mutations, and that when our life ends, nothing lies waiting.

   We who believe have hope.  Atheists and agnostics may ridicule us into thinking it's a false hope, but what do they have to offer in its place?  An existence that is amoral and meaningless? A life of hedonism, because the pleasures of this life are all we will ever have?  No, thank you.  I like the promise of Scripture so much better:  "Beloved, now we are the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be.  But we know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him just as He is."

"We shall behold Him."  What a magnificent promise - a promise no tragedy can take away!  In the end, faith is the only response that makes any sense in a world that is far too filled with suffering.

Monday, December 21, 2015

And Just Like That, It's Christmas Again!

   Where does the time go?

    This has been my first full year of keeping a blog, and I appreciate all of you who take the time to read it.  I seem to average about 40-50 views per post, and that's very flattering.  I am hoping this thing will grow over time, as my readership grows, but I'm happy either way.  The greatest hope of any writer is that people enjoy his words enough to come back for more.

     There are lots of things I could write about today, and no way to write about all of them.  So I thought that I might recap a few things that I talked about in church yesterday.  My sermon title was "Heaven Came Down."  As I read through a few verses from the first and second chapters of Luke's Gospel, I saw four occasions where heaven, quite literally, came down and intersected lives on earth in the course of the Nativity story.

   First, in the appearance of the angel to Zacharias in the Temple - here, heaven came down to an old man and woman, bereft of children in a time when your offspring were the only "Social Security" that there was.  They were facing the prospect of lonely old age, with no one to look after either of them once their strength and finances gave out.  Heaven came down and injected hope into a hopeless situation, creating life out of death, giving these two godly people the one thing they had always prayed for - but more than that, giving to all of God's people the messenger, the herald of the Messiah, that they had longed for since the days of Moses.  Four hundred years had passed since the last prophet spoke to Israel, and now God gently reminds his people, through this miraculous birth, that He is not done with them yet.  Even in the hopelessness of occupation and subjugation by Rome, God's plan was still rolling forward, and redemption was now at hand.

   Then there was the annunciation to Mary that her child would be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who would redeem not just the sons of Abraham but all mankind from the hopelessness of sin.  Here we see heaven coming down at a time and place least expected, but most needed.  Who was Mary?  While there has been a ton of mythology attached to her name, in the end, what we know is sparse: she was a virgin girl of the ancient line of King David, living a normal life in Nazareth.  She was devout, and very knowledgeable concerning the Scriptures (in her song "the Magnificat" recorded in Luke 1 there are 15 direct quotations and/or allusions to the OT), and most likely very young.  This peasant girl from a small village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire would give birth to the most significant human being to ever walk the earth - and a messenger direct from the throne of God came and gave her this news!  Heaven came down when it was least expected to bring the news most needed.

  Third, there is the actual birth of Jesus - all the wisdom, love, and power of the Godhead poured into a frail human vessel, a tiny infant possessing the consciousness that created the Universe. "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory - the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."  It would have been a step down of unimaginable proportions had God stepped into the body of Caesar Augustus himself!  But for the creator of the universe to incarnate himself into the body of an infant, born to an impoverished family, and cradled in a feeding trough for cattle - all to accomplish the redemption of a wicked and selfish people who had done nothing to earn God's favor or mercy!  Here is a love story beyond compare.

  Fourth and finally - heaven came down to pronounce the birth of the Messiah King, not in the Temple at Jerusalem, nor to the Forum in Rome - but to a band of penniless shepherd, camped in the field by night and tending their flocks.  Why God chose this unlikely band of witnesses to behold the arrival of His Son, we do not know - but it affirms the central truth of the Christmas story:

Heaven comes down to bring life to the lifeless and hope to the hopeless.  It comes down in the time least looked for, in the form least expected, and reveals itself to the least likely of audiences.  And yet - two thousand years later, we still remember and celebrate!

"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in."

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Vexing Issue of Islam in the Age of Obama and Trump

   Radical Islam, specifically those radical Muslims dedicated to jihad against the West, have been on the mind of every American since 9/11/01 slapped us in the face with the depths of evil to which some will sink in the name of religion.  Recent events in Syria, Iraq, Paris, and San Bernardino have made Islam/Jihad/radicalism the focal point of countless talk shows and FB memes all around America. As voices on all sides become more shrill and more insistent that the other side is wrong, maintaining any kind of mental balance becomes harder and harder.

     Two responses have emerged to the wave of Islamic violence radiating from the Middle East in recent years.  The first is that Islam is really a peaceful and tolerant religion, that groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haran are a tiny minority who no more represent a majority of Islam than Westboro Baptist and the KKK represent the majority of Christendom.  Therefore any kind of extra vigilance directed at Muslims is nothing more than racism, pure and simple, just as detestable as Bull Connor turning the fire hoses on Birmingham's black children as they marched for justice sixty years ago. That is the position of our President and many in his party.

   The other is a knee-jerk Islamophobia that regards every single Muslim on earth as a potential jihadist, secretly committed to the death of Western Civilization, opposed to all religious and political freedom, and ready to clap a burka over every woman in sight and turn every church into a mosque.  These folks argue that all Muslims must be regarded with suspicion and excessive scrutiny, and Donald Trump has become their spokesman.  You get the feeling that many of these people would be fine with forcing American Muslims to wear a yellow crescent on their chest and live in special camps where they could be de-programmed, or even eliminated.  So we see the endless parade of "Lock and Load!" posts on FB that do nothing but feed fear and hatred.

   The problem is that both of these responses are based on a false narrative.  There are about 1.2 billion Muslims in the world.  If even half of them were committed to jihad, our world would be awash in blood (yes, things in the Middle East are bad, but they could be so much worse than they are right now if ALL of the area's residents decided to rise up against the infidel!).  A majority of the world's Muslims are not committed to killing or forcibly converting their neighbors, and the fact is that many of them are decent people, our friends, neighbors, and co-workers who despise ISIS just as much as we do.  I mean, does anyone see Kareem Abdul-Jabar shouting "Allahu Akbar!" and blowing up half the crowd at a Lakers game? Of course not.  But, if you treat 1.2 billion people as enemies, you turn more and more of them into enemies - which is exactly what groups like ISIS want!

   On the other hand, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ilk are not the tiny minority some would have us believe, nor have they somehow "hijacked" Islam from its peaceful roots.  Truth be told, their actions are closer to the actions of Muhammad and the first generations to follow his call to jihad - a bloody wave of warfare, slavery, and forced conversions that wiped out whole cultures and spilled over the Middle East and North Africa like a bloody tidal wave in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD.  No one knows what percentage of Muslims world wide are "radicalized" - nor is there any exact agreement as to what that term means.  But I daresay that the jihadists represent a far greater percentage of Islam than Klansmen and Westboro fanatics do of Christianity! (It's also worth pointing out that the Westboro goons, although they are often held up as an example of the most extreme and ugly perversion of Christianity out there, have never bombed a gay nightclub or cut the head off of someone they don't like!)  So the threat is real, and ignoring it won't make it go away. But it's also something that is impossible to defend against 100% of the time.

   So what do we do?  What is the proper response to this threat that seems so menacing - and yet is not nearly as great as our media, in their endless quest for ratings, makes it out to be?  In the wake of the Paris attacks, I made post on this very blog pointing out some of the dangers of taking the threat for granted.  And yet, as I look around thereafter, I see the dangers of taking it too seriously.  So here is what I propose:

    First of all, we can't let fear make us quit being Americans.  Being American means believing in religious freedom, rejecting persecution on the grounds of faith, even if the faith isn't one we share or find particularly appealing.  We also can't let fear eat away our compassion - that means we try to help the victims of conflict, even when we have huge deficits at home.  It means we try to offer some sort of shelter and aid to the victims of the conflict in Syria, even if that may mean bringing some of them here.  But what if there are ISIS sleeper agents among them?  So be it.  As Americans, we accept a certain level of gun carnage every year as the price of having the freedom to bear arms.  Far more Americans are killed every week by handguns wielded by their fellow Americans than have perished in all the terrorist attacks of the last ten years.  Yet we on the right side of the political aisle scream bloody murder at the thought of anyone infringing on our Second Amendment rights.  If we are willing to see that much blood spilled to preserve one of our freedoms, are we willing to bargain away other sacred American traditions for the fear that a hypothetical jihadist might strike at us after being given shelter and refuge?  Are we willing to condemn men, women, and children to death and slavery to avoid a threat that most likely will never touch us personally?

   Last of all, Christians must still be Christians.  I'm not talking about the idiot Crusaders who slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims in the name of a Savior whose words they could not even read. I'm talking about the fearless, blazing faith of Jesus and his disciples who were willing to face death by the cross, the sword, and wild beasts with the name of the Lord on their lips and hearts full of love for those who were screaming for their blood.  It means that we must recognize that Jesus died for that radicalized Muslim cleric just as much as He died for you and me, and that above all we must pray for the salvation of the followers of Muhammad, that the love of God may conquer the forces of hate.

    Our government has a responsibility, before God and the Constitution, to defend our lives, liberty, and property against those who would destroy us.  That responsibility should be exercised cautiously, soberly, and, at times, forcefully.   But our government ultimately answers to and reflects us, and we must not let fear turn us into a dark mirror image of those who seek to destroy us.  We must remember who we are, lest we become that which we hate.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Faith Is Not Necessarily Blind . . . .

   Why do I write what I do?  If there is a common thread that runs through all of my books, it is my belief that the Gospels passed on, with careful accuracy, the teachings and the life story of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because I believe the Gospels, I therefore believe that Jesus - Yeshua, the simple Galilean carpenter born during the reign of Augustus a little over two thousand years ago - truly was the Son of God, a divine being come into the world to bring hope and salvation to mankind.  I believe in His teachings, and I believe the miracles he performed really happened as described.  I believe the rest of the New Testament was written by His disciples as part of their commission to "bind and loose," to lay down the doctrines and practices, based on the teachings of Jesus Himself, that would be binding upon Christians until the day when He returns for His church.
    Some of my atheist friends like to poke fun at my convictions, mocking my "blind faith" in a book that was written by men some two thousand years ago.  How can I be sure that these documents are true, first of all?  How can I be confident that the text we have today is even close to the original wording of these documents when they have been copied by hand again and again and again for centuries?  Why don't I accept the other Gospels - the books attributed to Thomas, Judas, Peter, and others that didn't make it into the New Testament?  I get asked a lot of questions all the time, and I respond to them regularly in the various social media forums that I belong to.  But I thought that I might devote tonight's post to some very basic explanations.
   Why do I believe the Gospels are true?  Simple.  First of all, they were written earlier than any other Christian writings except a few of Paul's letters.  Every single Gospel was written within the First Century, according to all but a few radical scholars.  At the latest, that puts them within seventy years of the events they chronicle.  However, most scholars would say that the three Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - were completed by around 70 AD.  I think a very convincing case can be made that they were written a decade earlier, in the early 60's.  So that puts them within thirty to forty years of the events they chronicle.  Consider that the biographies of the Roman emperors of the First Century that modern historians rely on were actually written a hundred years or more after those men lived, and that the stories of Buddha's life were not written down for nearly three hundred years, that's a negligible period of time.  Many of the participants in the events would have still been alive when the Gospels were written, and if you go by the traditional authorship (I have yet to see any convincing reason to reject those claims) assigned to the Gospels, two of them were written by eyewitnesses, one by a close associate of Simon Peter, and finally, one by a Greek doctor who clearly said that he got his information from those "who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word."  Secondly, the historical details contained within the Gospels in every case match up to the historical setting in which the events occurred.  Luke's Gospel in particular lists the names of numerous local authorities and officials, and in every case he uses the correct name and title for the correct person at the correct time and place.  John lists details of the Temple rituals, the geography of Jerusalem, and Jewish customs that a later writer would have had no way of knowing.  Accuracy in small details is a reliable companion to accuracy in major claims.  Third, while there are minor variations in the events chronicled in the Gospels, on the central teachings of Jesus and the chronology of his life, they are in full agreement - a hallmark of a true account.  The variations that do occur are a natural result of an event being recalled from more than one perspective, not "contradictions" as they are often touted to be.
   How can we be confident of our current text?  After all, the Gospels were hand copied by scribes for many  centuries.  Didn't they make mistakes?  The short answer is, of course they did.  However, the number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is so large (over seven thousand!), and the gap between the time the originals were written and the date of the earliest copies we have is so small, that it is a very simple matter for textual scholars to weed out the errors that have crept in.  For example, Homer's Odyssey is the second place finisher for number of manuscripts, with around five hundred or so.  But the earliest fragment of Homer dates to around 100 AD, nine centuries after he wrote, and the earliest complete copy is from around 800 AD.  That's a gap of some sixteen hundred years! We have two complete copies of the New Testament that date to around 320-350 AD (three centuries or less after their writing), and fragments of individual books that go back to within a single generation of the originals! (The Rylands papyrus fragment of John 18 has been dated to about 120 AD; John was the last Gospel written, around 90 AD or so.)
    It's also worth noting that none of these scribal errors really affect the meaning of the Gospel, or any of the cardinal doctrines of the church.  Of the 200,000 or so documented errors in the various Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some 80% are simple spelling errors, and another 15% or so are errors in the order of words - the most common of which is a scribe writing "Christ Jesus" when the original text said "Jesus Christ." What exactly do errors like that change about our understanding of the Gospel?  NOTHING!   Only in a handful of passages in the entire New Testament is there any doubt about the original wording, and none of them change a single major doctrine of Christianity.
  Finally, why do I reject the "Gnostic Gospels" like Thomas, Judas, and others?  All of them date much later than the four canonical gospels - while some have tried to argue that Thomas may date to the first century, textual analysis makes a date in the mid-to-late second century far more likely. The other Gnostic Gospels date even later.  In other words, there is a very high probability, historically speaking, that the four Gospels of the New Testament could have been written by, or at least preserve the words of, the men whose names they bear.  The window of time is small enough, and every single ancient source ascribes them to those authors and no others.  However, all the other Gospels show up far too late to have been written by the men whose names they bear, which means they are based on a falsehood from the get-go.  They also contain numerous historical errors, and present a very different view of Jesus from that of the earliest and most reliable sources.  Not only that, the Apostolic Fathers of the second and third centuries after Christ were unanimous in condemning these works as "spurious" - in modern language, forgeries.
   So, in the end, my faith is based on a reasonable, historical conclusion that the Gospels are ancient, accurate sources of information about the life of Jesus.  That's not exactly "blind"!!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Almost Here!!!

Three years ago today, I finished the first draft of my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM.  I was a history teacher and pastor with aspirations of becoming a published author, but I had no idea if those dreams would come true or not.  Honestly, all I knew at that moment was that I had written a book that I was proud of.  It took me over a year to finally find a publisher that was willing to take a chance on a complete rookie - I mean, a real royalty publisher, not a vanity press that wanted to charge me money to print my book.  I will forever be grateful to Jesse Greever and Chris Dixon, the wonderful team at Electio Publishing, who were willing to pick up a manuscript from a first time author.  I signed my contract with them in February of 2014.
    By the time THE TESTIMONIUM was published, I was putting the finishing touches on my second novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.   Once the contract for my first book was signed and the release date granted, I sent them the next one.  To my joy and wonder, they liked it too!  It was released about nine months after THE TESTIMONIUM, in May of this year.
   But it's funny how writing gets under your skin.  PILATE was a historical novel, set in the First Century, linked to THE TESTIMONIUM only by the letter Pilate wrote to Rome about the Crucifixion of Jesus, which my modern-day archeologists had discovered in the first book.  But in my mind, I kept going back to that first set of characters I created - Josh and Isabella, Father Duncan and Luke Martens, with his young wife Alicia.  What happened to them after their remarkable discovery on the Isle of Capri? 
    So even as THE TESTIMONIUM was about to be released, I was hard at work on its sequel, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  In it, my team returns for yet another adventure.  This time the lovely Isle of Carpi is traded for the sands of the Negev Desert, and instead of a writing chamber, what they find is a tomb.  Not just any tomb either, for the ossuary that blocks the entrance is inscribed with a name familiar to every Christian:  "Matthew Levi, beloved scribe of his Lord."  Now in one week, this sequel to THE TESTIMONIUM will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and ITunes, as well as a number of other online distributors.  If you liked THE TESTIMONIUM, you will love MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH!

    Now, for those who haven't read any of my stuff yet, I'm going to introduce the main characters here below and tell you a little bit of what they have been up to since they left the Isle of Capri.  First of all, there is Father Duncan MacDonald. A trained archeologist as well as a Catholic priest, he is employed by the Vatican as an archeological consultant, especially on sites that have some Biblical relevance.  He makes the initial discovery of St. Matthew's tomb in the Negev.  Then we have Joshua Parker and his wife, Isabella Sforza-Parker and their son, Giuseppe, who prefers to be called "Joey."  Josh is the son of a Baptist pastor and a professional Biblical archeologist.  He and Isabella met on Capri, where she was the supervisor of the dig that uncovered Pilate's "Testimonium" a few years before.  Romantic sparks flew between them immediately, and now they are married, living in America. and longing for a return to archeological field work after spending the last two years on a book tour.  Then we have Dr. Luke Martens, Josh's friend and mentor and a renowned classical archeologist in his own right.  He and his beautiful wife Alicia, an aspiring marine biologist, are also called in to help Father MacDonald excavate this remarkable discovery in Israel.
   Full of danger, intrigue, romance, and potentially earth-shattering discoveries about the truth of the Gospel accounts, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH is a fun, fast-paced Christian adventure story for readers of all ages!  Here is the short blurb I wrote for the back of the book . . .


WHAT IF OUR GOSPELS. . .  AREN’T GOSPEL?

 

It was supposed to be a simple bit of salvage archeology for Father Duncan MacDonald, the Vatican archeologist:

Check out an empty cave uncovered in the Negev Desert by an Israeli construction crew, to see if it had any archeological significance.  But then a false wall in the back of the cave revealed a basalt ossuary, inscribed with the name of "Matthew Levi, Beloved Scribe of His Lord."  Behind the ossuary - an ancient tomb with a human skeleton and a sealed jar. 

Finding the undisturbed tomb of one of the Apostles of Jesus leads the Israeli government to call in Duncan’s companions, the famous “Capri team” who had discovered the Testimonium of Pontius Pilate three years before.  When the three archeologists arrive in Tel Aviv, they discover an amazing document inside the tomb: the end of Matthew’s Gospel, written in the Apostle’s own hand!

Their excitement turns to perplexity when they translate the scroll and find the text varies drastically from every copy of the Book of Matthew in existence.  Have the New Testament Gospels been altered with since they were written? Has this tomb really lain undisturbed for two thousand years?  Is this ancient manuscript really . . .

MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH?

One week away, guys!  Are you as excited as I am!!!!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Reflections on the Paris Attacks

   Today my social media posts are lit up with friends and family urging us to "Stand with Paris" and "Pray for Paris."  Both of these are noble sentiments and I fully endorse them.  The terrorist attacks last night were barbaric, evil, and heinous in every possible definition of those terms.  I pray for healing and peace for the victims, and for swift and terrible justice to those who would plan and perpetrate such an act.  For the record, I will also state this - the French people are not a warlike bunch.  They love peace and friendship and prefer to avoid conflict when possible.  But they are also a proud people, and the humiliations of the twentieth century have left them with a certain determination to never be walked on again.  I think their response to these ISIS attacks will be far more ferocious and effective than the efforts of the feckless, na├»ve incompetent who currently occupies the White House.

   But what happened in Paris is symptomatic of something much larger.  I wrote about it on my Facebook page in these terms:
 
 
The morning after . . . done being shocked, at least.
There is a war on, my friends. It is not just a war on America, or a war on Christianity. It is a war on two thousand years of Western Civilization, on all freedom of expression, freedom of religion, on any rights whatsoever for women, on every single individual's right to decide for himself what he will believe, think, and say. We can close our eyes to it, we can ignore it, we can deny it, but it will still eventually
find its way to our doors.
This war is being waged in the name of Islam, and it represents a dark and bloody stain that has been present in that faith since Muhammad first fled from Mecca in 632 AD. From its inception, Islam has been a war of compulsion. Unlike Jesus, who never once picked up a sword, Muhammad led armies and put to death those who opposed his vision and commanded his followers to do the same. The bloody-handed monsters who slaughtered the innocents in Paris were following his commands and his example.
Not all Muslims are terrorists. Every Muslim I have known in person was a decent and peaceful individual, and the vast majority of Muslims on earth have made the decision to ignore the Quran's call for jihad. But for those who take the Quran literally, the command to "make war on the infidel" is absolute and unending. It's time for the Western world to acknowledge this threat for what it is and quit saying that it is "a perversion of Islam." Jihad is not the only thing Islam is about, but it is a huge part of the history and creed of that faith. Denying it will not change that. 
 
   I am sometimes accused of being prejudiced against Muslims.  That is not accurate.  First of all, my problem is not with individual Muslims.  Most of them I have known are decent and peaceful people, as I stated above.  I do have a problem with Islam, it's true.  But is it prejudice?
 
   I would say no.  What I perceive, at least, is "post-judice."  What do I mean by that?  It's a simple concept, really.
 
   There are two ways to judge a religion.  One is by the behavior of its followers, the other is by the teaching of its scriptures.  Now, it is certainly true that, judging by the former, Christianity has been a violent faith for far too much of its history.  The Inquisition, the Reformation Wars, the conquest of the Americas, and yes, even the Crusades (although it is worth pointing out that the Crusades were a response to Islam's initial two hundred and fifty years of jihad that wiped out entire cultures and subdued the entire Middle East at the point of the sword) were horrific to the extreme.  But did these things happen because Christians obeyed the teachings of Christ - or because they completely forgot or ignored them?
 
  That is where the second criteria comes in.  Did Jesus of Nazareth or his Apostles, in all of the teachings contained in the New Testament, ever once order Christians to wage war on other faiths, to harm other people, or to commit violence of any sort?
 
   The answer is no.  And therein lies the difference between the two faiths:  A Christian who kills in the name of his faith is absolutely violating both the teachings and the example of Jesus and His Apostles, and the clearly written teachings of the New Testament.  A Muslim who kills in the name of his faith is doing so in obedience to both the teachings and example of Muhammad.  I don't write this because I hate Muslims; I write it because it is historically accurate.  As long as the Western world chooses to ignore this aspect of Islam, this twilight struggle for the survival of Western Civilization will continue to be lost.
 
   And when the West falls, the world to follow will be a Dark Age like none we have seen before.
 

Friday, November 6, 2015

An AMAZING Opportunity!

Since I started this blog a year ago, I've talked here about my wonderful job - teaching in a private Christian school where I get to watch my students grow up year after year, my career as a writer (third book is coming out at the end of this month!), my crazy life as a husband, pastor, father, and artifact collector (when the rest of my crazy life gives me the chance to go and play!).  I've also shared a good bit of my political thinking (you guys may be getting tired of that by now, but politics fascinates me and always has, so I can't promise there won't be more to follow!) and my love of bad movies.

But there are three passions that really define me as a person, besides my love for my God, my wife and daughters.  First of these is my love of history.  I am a devoted student of the past, reading books and doing research all the time to learn more about the world that was before us, especially the civilizations that gave rise to ours - the mighty heritage of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian world.  I simply can't consume enough history to slake my thirst for more.

Second, my love of archeology.  The quest to find that elusive bit of the past and hold it in your hand; to know that someone in a previous generation of humanity made and shaped this little object long ago, and held it in their hand even as you are holding it now. Artifacts, whether Roman coins, jade carvings from China, flint arrowheads, or bronze figurines - they are a physical way of connecting with the past that mere study and book knowledge cannot match.

Last of all, my deed and abiding fascination with Biblical events.  I believe that the stories chronicled in the Gospels are literally true and factually accurate.  The "historical Jesus" IS the Jesus of the New Testament, for only the New Testament was written by men who knew Him and walked with Him.  So many archeological details discovered in the last hundred years have confirmed even the small details of the New Testament narrative that books can (and have) been written and the subject is still far from exhausted.

I have always dreamed of visiting the Holy Land and walking where Jesus walked.  To see with my own eyes the streets of Jerusalem, the waters of the Sea of Galilee, the Garden of Gethsemane.  To stand atop Masada, where the Jews made their last stand against the Romans; or to see the fortress where John the Baptist spent his last lonely days in prison; or to view the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  What a journey that would be!

But it was just a pipe dream.  My wife and I have twin daughters in college and we pretty much live paycheck to paycheck.  There is no way that I could afford to go and visit the Holy Land, no matter how much I wanted to.

But last month I got the invitation from a fellow Greenville pastor.  With a small group of local history buffs and under the auspices of the Austin Graduate School of Theology's Biblical Archeology Class, on March 20 I will be flying in to Tel Aviv on a ten day archeological tour of Israel's many Biblical sites!  I still feel like it is all just a dream, but it's not.  The passport application is on my dining table behind me, to be filled out this weekend.  I have a copy of my itinerary already; we'll be seeing everything from the Dead Sea to the Negev Desert to the Sea of Galilee in those ten days.  I couldn't be more excited!

Paying for it is going to be a challenge.  All told, it's going to cost me around $3500 to make the trip.  I'm excited and nervous at the same time - that's a healthy chunk of dough from our household budget.  But one encouraging note is that many of my students and their families, as well as old church friends, have told me they want to help me raise the money to go.  So I did create a GoFundMe page where anyone who wants to can chip in a bit.  I know, I know, this isn't a life or death thing and there are many more worthy causes out there.  But, if you would like to help me achieve this lifelong dream, here's a link you can follow to do so.  In the meantime, keep me in your prayers, and watch this space and my FB page next spring for LOTS AND LOTS of pictures!  God bless you all - I'M GOING TO ISRAEL!!!!!!!!!

https://www.gofundme.com/r76waxa8

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Debate Watching With My High Schoolers Again!

  I had really intended to post on a non-political topic last week, but life has been extremely busy as I juggle my various responsibilities as husband, teacher, father, pastor, and writer.  By the time I got through Sunday, I realized that it was past time for a new blog post, but almost time for the next GOP debate!  Since I had already told my students we'd be doing another watch party, I figured I'd just wait and post my reactions here for this week's post.

   First of all, my hearty thanks to the nine students who came out tonight to share this time with me.  High school kids are incredibly busy these days, and the fact that they were willing to come and spend this time with their government teacher outside of normal school hours makes me very happy and proud of them.  Every day, my students fill me with hope for the next generation.

   Secondly, shame on CNBC for NOT providing free streaming video of the debate like EVERY OTHER network has done!  It just wasn't nearly as interesting not being able to see the candidates interact, although I did try to overcome the situation a little bit by setting up a slideshow with pictures of all the candidates and flipping to whoever was speaking at the moment.  (That got a little difficult during the more rapid-fire exchanges!)  Double shame on CNBC for the blatant bias of the moderators.  Every other question was some sort of "Gotcha" moment, and some of the follow up questions were so obviously loaded that the audience actually booed the moderators.  (Good on you, audience!)

   Briefly, I want to mention the "undercard" debate.  I only caught the last half of it because I was busy setting things up for the kids, but I will say that Lindsey Graham did dominate the part of it that I heard.  I was a bit torn during the whole thing though - on the one hand, I firmly believe that any of these men would be a better President than the current occupant of the White House.  On the other hand, not one of them currently has 2 per cent support in any poll.  Seriously, guys, you gave it a good try, now drop out already!  (That being said, Lindsey Graham NEEDS to be Secretary of State.  His foreign policy knowledge is truly impressive!)

   Now, for the night - Most of the candidates got in at least one or two good licks, and none of them imploded on the stage tonight.  The moderators did (to give them credit for the one thing they did well) try to give roughly equal time to the candidates.  I  think the spread between the one with the most talking time and the least was maybe two or three minutes, so that's pretty egalitarian.  So here are my winners and losers:

TOP THREE:

MARCO RUBIO - What a night my man from Florida had!  I've always liked him, and he really shone this evening.  He handled the questions well, and when the moderators tried to spring a "gotcha" moment on him about his absenteeism from the Senate, he turned it around on them and delivered a huge applause line.  I was very impressed with his performance.

TED CRUZ - I have never been a fan of this guy - his "do it my way or I will shut down the government" style leaves me pretty cold.  That being said, I will give him the courtesy of saying that he is one of the most consistent candidates on the stage, and he gave a bang-up performance tonight. He is in this for the long haul.

CHRIS CHRISTIE - I can't help but like this guy.  He's funny, quick to jump on opportunities, and genuinely compassionate for those who are hurting.  He is not my first choice as President, but I bet he jumps up a few places in the polls next week.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

DONALD TRUMP - I've made no secret of my dislike of Trump, but that being said, he didn't have a bad debate, or a particularly good one.  He was mellow, made some good points here and there, and generally refrained from the abrasive mannerisms that are the hallmark of his style.  But, on the other hand, he had very little new to offer, and honestly, I still hear "I-I-Me-Me!" every time he opens his mouth.

CARLY FIORINA - The feisty lady from California had the most talking time of anybody on the stage, and she was solid, as she always is, but she didn't shine tonight like she did in the first two debates she took part in.  She'll probably stay in 5th place or so.

BEN CARSON - It is virtually impossible not to like this calm, unflappable man.  He is genuinely nice, undeniably brilliant, and has a sincere charm that has served him very well.  But, while he gave a couple of very good answers, he just came across as sounding almost sleepy.  I don't think he'll get a huge bump out of the evening.

MIKE HUCKABEE - I voted for him in 2008, even though he had actually dropped out of the race by the time it got to Texas.  I've lost some respect for him this time around because of some of the extreme positions he has embraced, but at the same time, he had a pretty good night and may stick around a while longer.

BOTTOM OF THE BARREL:

JOHN KASICH - The Ohio Governor is a very solid candidate, but he's spinning his wheels at this point.  His brand has not caught fire, and despite his impressive resume, I think he's not long for the race at this point.

RAND PAUL - Go away already!  No one is buying your brand of isolationist, libertarian Republicanism.  You may have been the darling of the Tea Party at one point, but now you are just an annoying gadfly using up airtime that could go to a worthier candidate.

JEB BUSH - It saddens me to write this.  I love the Bush family; I have enormous respect for Bush 41 and genuine affection for "W".  But while there may be another President Bush someday, it's not going to be Jeb.  He needed to hit a home run tonight, and he got a double AT BEST.  His campaign is entering the "circling the drain" phrase; the only question is how long its death throes will drag on.

   So that's how I felt about the evening.  Tomorrow I'll ask my students to give me their essays on who won; I look forward to reading them. 

NEXT WEEK: Non-political, I promise!!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A CONSERVATIVE PERSPECTIVE ON A LIBERAL DEBATE . . .

Well, I'm proud of myself. I sat through an entire Democratic debate. It wasn't easy - I disagree so profoundly with so much of what the Democrats say that I have a hard time not throwing stuff at the screen. But, I am a government teacher, and it's important for me to hear both sides. Here are my takeaways:
First, the "Forbidden Words."
NATIONAL DEBT. Not one candidate, not one questioner, not one journalist ever mentioned the fact that Barack Obama has accumulated more debt than all previous Presidents combined. Every single one of them is proposing more government programs, more spending, more regulatory power, and higher taxes. Are we ready to owe $30 trillion five years from now? That's where they would take us in a heartbeat if it meant they could control the Presidency and the Congress.
Second, the "name your enemies" question at the end.
With the exception of Jim Webb (who incidentally had the worst performance of the night), every one of them named their fellow Americans. Whether it be the Republicans, the corporations, the banks, every one of them named groups of Americans as the enemy whose hostility made them the most proud. The Democratic party is a party of never-ending class and race warfare.
Third: Biggest cop-out of the night - the answers to the question "Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?" Shameless pandering from every one of them. If all lives DON'T matter, then how CAN black lives matter?
NOW - Winners and losers.
Hillary Clinton - she had a strong, solid performance, she never lost her cool, and gave fairly strong answers to most of the questions. I'd just as soon chew my arm off as to vote for her, but she didn't have a terrible night (and let's be honest, she couldn't afford one right now!). I'd call her the winner.
Bernie Sanders - Holy cow, I REALLY do not like this man. Every word out of his mouth breathes hatred for the rich. He wants to make every American successful by destroying every American who succeeds! He is closer to communism than socialism IMO, and his policies would double our debt even faster than Obama managed to do it!
Jim Webb - This guy put up a horrible performance. He spent most of his limited air time complaining about his lack of air time rather than making his points. I thought this might be his breakaway night, but he really did not debate well.
Martin O'Malley - This may be the rising star in the polls next week. He was clear, lucid, and reasonable, gave solid answers, didn't whine about his time constraints, and is rather likable.
And, finally -
Lincoln Chafee. Can you say "self-righteous"? How many times did he refer to his lack of scandal and high ethical standards? That's the kind of thing that other people should say about you if it were true. I seriously doubt he'll gain much ground after tonight.
Last of all . . . the BIG LIE, repeated in one form or another by every single Democrat on the stage: "There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." How did Saddam Hussein gas 20,000 Kurds then? By farting on them???? But don't believe me - here is the proof, from that famous conservative rag the New York Times. Thousands of chemical weapons were found in Iraq. Admittedly, the program was dormant. But that which has been deactivated can be reactivated, and the leftist mantra "Bush lied, soldiers died" is as false today as it was when first uttered - and THIS proves it!

http://www.thepoliticalinsider.com/bombshell-new-york-times-reports-wmds-found-iraq/

Saturday, October 3, 2015

MAKING SENSE OF ANOTHER MASS SHOOTING

   Once more, an armed gunman comes onto a gun-free campus with multiple loaded weapons.  Once more, innocents are brutally killed and maimed.  Once more, the cowardly monster (whose name I refuse to write) kills himself when the sirens begin to sound.  Once more, the police arrive in time to identify the dead and help paramedics treat the wounded.  And once more, before the bodies are cold, our President goes on the air and demands tougher gun laws.
    Then the Facebook wars begin.
     I am a historian by training and an observer of humanity by choice.  I'm an avid consumer of cinema of nearly all genres.  I've been a pastor since I was 24 years old (I'm now 51.)  I've taught school at the same campus for 20 years now; I also teach night classes at our local community college.  I'm a navy vet and a published novelist.  In short, all things considered, I have a variety of real world experience and would probably be considered "smarter than the average bear."  But this phenomenon has me stumped.
    Americans have ALWAYS been a heavily armed society.  The founders wrote the Second Amendment into our Bill of Rights for a reason, and it certainly had nothing to do with hunting.  They wanted our country to be an armed society, both to fend off possible foreign incursions, but also to protect liberty from the tyrannical overreach of government - something that they knew a thing or two about.  So Americans have always owned guns.  And America has always had a reputation for violence - a reputation that newspapers and the entertainment industry have always exaggerated in order to sell newspapers/books/movies.  Every single movie about the Old West features a gunfight, if not multiple gunfights.  But actual study shows that the Western frontier was considerably less violent than the cities back East were in the late 19th century.  Even today, listening to the news, you would think we were in the middle of a horrific spike in violence, when in fact violent crime in America, according to official FBI crime statistics, is at a 40 year low.  That's right - the 1970's were much more violent that the second decade of the twenty-first century.  The number of gun deaths per 100,000 population is about 3 - in 1993 it was about 6.  So we've cut gun homicides in half just in the last 20 years.
   Something else to chew on:  there were no restrictions whatsoever on the ownership of firearms in the 19th century.  Yet to my knowledge - and I do know a thing or two about history - there was not a single mass shooting of school children during that time (black schools were the target of violence in the South during and after Reconstruction, but that violence was primarily directed at the teachers of black students and the school buildings themselves, which were often vandalized or torched).  For the first half of the  Twentieth Century, there were very few restrictions on gun ownership - and again, to the best of my knowledge, there was not a single case of a person coming onto a school campus and randomly shooting students.
   Even in the 1980's, when I was in High School, there were guns everywhere.  During hunting season, many of the pickup trucks in the High School parking lot had rifles or shotguns in the gunracks attached to the back window.  We never worried about someone grabbing one of them and using us for target practice. We knew the story of Charles Whitaker, the 1964 University of Texas tower sniper (I knew it better than most because my parents and siblings were there that awful day), but we also regarded that as a crazy fluke that, God willing, would never happen again.
   Then came Columbine, that horrible day when two evil Goth students came onto their campus and murdered 13 people, then killed themselves.  And since then, with depressing regularity, these psychotic monsters have invaded our campuses, military bases, theaters, and churches, slaughtering innocents and then usually ending their own lives.  And this week, the latest outrage.  This fellow had a deep-seated hatred for organized religion and primarily targeted Christians.  The Virginia Tech guy had it in for women.  The Fort Hood shooter was out to kill American soldiers.  The Columbine pair were out to avenge their lack of popularity on the "beautiful kids."
   It's easy to blame the gun.  Frankly, that's a cheap out.  We've always had guns, but we haven't always had school shootings.  No one has yet explained to me how more gun laws will prevent episodes like this from happening.  I guess some folks want to ban handguns altogether, but there are two huge problems with that: 1. Addictive drugs are banned, but addicts get their hands on them anyway. How will a ban on handguns be any different?  2.  It goes completely against the clear language of the Constitution.  Our Founders were a pretty bright bunch, and setting aside their wishes is risky business.
   On the other hand, it's much easier to envision how one student with a conceal and carry permit and a steady hand could have stopped this tragedy in its tracks.  That being said, he could also hit an innocent bystander, get shot by the police by mistake, or simply miss his shot and get killed by return fire.  Personally, I would argue that this theoretical gun owner has a better chance of stopping the next mass murder in progress than some legislative solution coming out of Washington.  But who knows?
   But both these standard talking point positions miss a larger point:  What is making these evil young people (only the Fort Hood shooter was over 40)  think that the best solution to their problem is to pick up a gun, kill a dozen innocent people, then shoot themselves or commit "suicide by cop"?  Some point to psychotropic medications.  It is true that many of these shooters were on meds, but were they psychotic because they were on meds, or were they on meds because they were psychotic?  That's the problem - no one can distinguish between correlation and causation. It's easy to blame guns, because guns were used in all these  cases.  But guns don't fire themselves!  Others point out the pathetic state of America's mental health care system - it's virtually impossible to have an individual involuntarily committed until AFTER they kill someone under current law. By then it's too late.
     There simply are no easy solutions.  If there were, we would have found them by now.
    Some Americans simply have a sickness of the soul.  That's the bottom line.  There are wretched, evil people out there.  Some of them need medical and psychiatric help, with which they can possibly lead normal lives.  Some are so purely evil - or so deeply sick - that they simply need to be locked up for the safety of everyone else.  But above all, what we need is a return to the values this country was based on, that all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights - especially the right to life.  We have devalued life across the board in this country, in our politics, in our entertainment, and in our laws.  If all of us cherished life more, there would be fewer tragedies like the events in Oregon.  At least, that is this writer's opinion.

Friday, September 25, 2015

WAIT A MINUTE . . . WHOSE BIRTHDAY?

September 23 was the birthday of the ruler of the world.
In his lifetime, he was called Imperator, the Greatest, and the Son of God.

He was born Gaius Octavius in the year 63 BC.  His mother was a niece of the most famous Roman of the day, indeed, according to many scholars and his contemporaries, the greatest Roman who ever lived - Gaius Julius Caesar.  Young Octavius - also called Octavian - caught the eye of his famous great-uncle when he was in his teens, and Caesar named him as his conterburnalis (junior military aid) when Octavian was 19.  By that time, Caesar had defeated the Gauls, conquered three new provinces for Rome, and defeated his enemies in the Senate.  What was left of that august body of legislators had proclaimed Julius Caesar as dictator for life.  Caesar had implemented a huge slate of reforms for the city of Rome and the Republic's government and was preparing to march east, to bring down Rome's last remaining rival, the mighty Parthian Empire.  His friend Crassus had died fighting the Parthians, and Caesar wanted to avenge his death and recover the seven Eagle standards the Parthians had taken from the legions they vanquished when Crassus fell at Carrhae.  Before he could depart, though, a jealous band of conspirators ended Caesar's life by stabbing him to death.

   To the surprise and shock of everyone - especially Caesar's cousin and chief military legate, Marcus Antonius - Caesar's will named young Octavian as his chief heir.  No one expected the frail, asthmatic lad to last long in the brutal world of Roman politics.  But within eleven years of his uncle's death, the self proclaimed "Son of the Divine Julius" had vanquished Antony and Cleopatra, driven his enemies from Rome, and united the squabbling Republic into a well-run, centralized Empire with himself as its head of state.  Wielding power with an iron fist concealed in a velvet glove, he restored peace and order and made Rome the greatest power in the world.  Of all his accomplishments, he took the most pride in the fact that he had extinguished the fires in the temple of Mars - which signified that Rome was at war - more often and for longer periods than anyone could ever remember.  The government that he founded would endure till Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 476 AD, and then it would transfer itself to Constantinople and endure for another thousand years as the Byzantine Empire.  Needless to say, his birthday was a great holiday in Rome.

   So why does it pass unnoticed except for a few history geeks like me?  Because of another birthday, one that took place around the thirtieth year of his forty-five year reign.  This baby was not born into a wealthy patrician family, nor was he adopted by a rich uncle.  His youth was so unremarkable that only one story about it survives.  He worked with his hands, supported a houseful of siblings after his father's death, and traveled on foot wherever he went.  He never held a sword, never wrote a book, never took a single life.  Yet today HE is the one we remember as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of God, and the most significant life in the history of the Western world.  There is no doubt that Caesar Augustus changed the world, and that those changes were generally for the better.  But it was not his birth that split history in half - it was a birth that took place in a humble barn, many miles from Rome.  That is a birthday that no one forgets!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

PIZZA AND POLITICS - Debate Watching With My Students

    I teach Senior Government every year at our little Christian School, and Government class is always more interesting when it happens in an election year . . . or in this case, during the election pre-season.  I had talked with my kids about the debate process, primaries, and the general election, and we've been tracking the average of national polls every week (as found on my favorite political website, www.realclearpolitics.com).  I asked them to watch the GOP debate this week as an assignment, and several of them said something to the effect that they wish they could watch it with me.  One thing led to another, our headmaster was consulted, and so it came to pass that, at 7 PM Wednesday evening, I streamed the debate live from the CNN website onto my projector screen, and some 18 students - mostly juniors and seniors - joined me to watch the festivities!

     Many of them had never seen a political debate before, while others are hard-core political junkies like me.  No one really cared for Donald Trump much, while everyone seemed to enjoy Carly Fiorina's quick wit, Marco Rubio's polished eloquence, and Chris Christie's earnest good humor.  We hung around together for about two hours, but the kids' patience wore out around 9:15, so they filed out one by one while I waited for a commercial break to log off the PC, lock up the building, and drive home, where I was able to catch the finale (Over three hours?  This was the TITANIC of political debates!).  I had also been able to catch the last hour or so of the early debate between the junior league candidates, so by the end of the evening I was politically sated, happy, and ready for bed.  Today I got to listen to the students' impressions in class, and I look forward to reading their post-debate essays Monday morning.  In the meantime, since this is my blog, I'll share my own impressions.  First of all, the "Happy Hour" debate -

    The candidates got a LOT of speaking time, because there were only four of them.  Rick Perry has officially dropped out, and I don't know what happened to Jim Gilmore, but he's been polling less than .1% pretty much from the get-go, so I guess he's given up too.  That left the stage to Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki.  Bearing in mind that I only heard about half of the debate, here are my rankings -

LINDSEY GRAHAM -  Winner!  The man's knowledge of foreign policy is impressive, and his grasp of the nature of the threat we face is solid.  He also has the advantage of experience, and his comments about working together with Democrats a la Reagan and O'Neill were a welcome break from the constant demonization of the opposition so current in Tea Party circles. Plus, how can you not like a guy who says that, in his White House, "we'll do more drinkin'!!"  Can he be elected President?  Not a chance!  But would he make an incredible Secretary of State or Defense?  You betcha!

RICK SANTORUM - A great performance, eloquent, heartfelt, and inspiring.  He's another who will never be President, but he has many of the qualities that would make him a great one.  Maybe if there was a freak KING RALPH-style accident (1990's comedy with John Goodman.  Check it out!) he'll get the chance.  Otherwise, he may not last much longer.

BOBBY JINDAL - Not that great.  A few good points, and an inspiring biography, but he's desperate and it shows.

GEORGE PATAKI - He really ought to go run as a Democrat.  He would get more support in their party, and he might even get the nomination.

   On to the main event - this was more a WWE brawl than a debate.  The moderators made it clear from the outset that they intended to promote sparring between the candidates, and boy did they!  From Donald Trump's tasteless assault on Rand Paul to Carly Fiorina's magnificent contempt for his shallow compliments, it was "open season on Donald" all night long!  Frankly, I was happy to see it.  The man is a world-class boor in my opinion, and he's been throwing down some pretty ugly rhetoric from Day One.  Obviously, in a debate with 11 people, no one person "wins," so here is my evaluation of the candidates' overall performance.  First of all -

THOSE WHO HELPED THEMSELVES:

CARLY FIORINA:  If I were to name any one person as the winner last night, it would be the lady from Hewlett-Packard.  She dominated the Junior League debate last time, and she pretty effectively dominated the debate last night.  From her initial head-to-head with Donald Trump to her beautiful and eloquent closing remarks, she was cool as a cucumber and smart as a whip throughout.  I've been thinking of her as a great running mate for someone; now I am thinking of her as a viable - indeed a formidable - Presidential candidate.  Well done, milady!

MARCO RUBIO - I have always admired this man.   He is thoughtful, eloquent, with an inspiring biography and some excellent policy ideas.  He avoids the extreme rhetoric and borderline racism that the Donald and his minions have embraced, and he also looked Presidential - poised, calm, and unflappable.  He has been my first choice from the get-go, and while I am also considering supporting Mrs. Fiorina, Rubio would certainly be a fine standard-bearer.

CHRIS CHRISTIE - I am not a huge fan of Governor Christie, but he needed to bring his A-game last night and he did.  Alternating between self-deprecating humor and earnest populism, his performance may well have taken him from the brink of elimination and vaulted him back up to the middle of the pack.

THOSE WHO HELD THEIR OWN:

DONALD TRUMP:  I don't like this man and never will like him.  The fact that he was polling at 30% going into this debate is a discredit to the party.  He is a bloviating, narcissistic windbag with no concrete policy ideas, just cheap shots at his opponents and rhetoric that sells well to angry, low-information voters.  That being said, he handled himself with aplomb, reserving his sole childish cheap shot of the evening for Rand Paul.  Otherwise, he listened, gave decent answers, and managed to not look like a buffoon most of the time.  I'm still hoping he'll have a "Howard Dean moment" at some point and go away for good, but it didn't come last night, and may not come anytime soon.  He's learning how the game is played.

BEN CARSON:  All my students were saying today: "He's so nice."  That is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.  In a field where hardball politics is the rule of the day, he has gained a strong following by being courteous, deferential, and humble while still projecting intelligence and competence.  It's an impressive feat that he carried forward last night, but I just don't think he is aggressive enough to secure the nomination, much less be elected.  They're right, though - he surely is a nice man.

JEB BUSH - He really needed to come out swinging after his boring and lackluster performance in the previous debate, and that he did.  Most of his swings were strikes, with a couple of singles scattered through.  He definitely improved on his last showing, but despite his skills at fund-raising, he is a long way from securing the nomination.  His spirited defense of his brother was the high point of his remarks.

TED CRUZ - While I don't have the visceral hatred for this man that all liberals and many mainstream Republicans do, his brand of confrontational, burn-the-bridges and take-no-prisoners politics, as well as his saber-rattling foreign policy, is a turnoff to me.  I don't doubt his sincerity, but he forgets too easily that in our Constitutional Republic, compromise is a necessity to keep the will of the majority from turning to tyranny.

MIKE HUCKABEE - I have always loved this man and still love him, but his grasp of basic civics is pretty weak at times.  The power of judicial review has rested with the Supreme Court for over 200 years, and belongs there.  We can't ignore rulings just because we disagree with them.  That being said, his essential goodness and decency combined with his excellent debate skills made him a strong performer.  He'll continue at the middle of the pack for a while longer, I think.

JOHN KASICH - What an impressive resume this man has!  He took a very active role in balancing the Federal budget for the only time in my life, and then did the same with the State budget as Governor of Ohio.  He also balances Christian compassion with political realism in a way many in the GOP do not.  However, the problem with all of those qualities is that they scream "establishment" in what is almost certainly going to be an anti-establishment year.

Now, finally:
THOSE WHO HURT THEMSELVES LAST NIGHT:

SCOTT WALKER - I like this man and I wanted to see him do well.  While he definitely tried, the fact is that he came across as flat and rather insipid - a pale shadow of Marco Rubio in more ways than one.  He's a young man and I hope he'll be back at some point in the future, because he has great promise.  But tonight was not his night.

RAND PAUL - For once, The Donald was right.  Paul didn't belong on the big boy stage.  I could not help but be reminded of a ten year old tagging along with his teenage brother's gang of friends.  His desperate bids for attention and relevance screamed:  "Me too!  Me too!!"  Go away, Rand, and try again another day.  This one's gotten past you.

   All in all, I enjoyed this debate a great deal.  The biggest missed opportunity of the night:  Given the location of the debate and the mementoes of the last truly great Republican president that were hanging all around, someone, at some point, should have looked at Donald Trump and said:


"There you go again!"


     But for me, the most satisfying moment of all came this morning, when one of my students came up to me and said:  "Mr. Smith, I've never cared about politics before.  But last night's debate party was so much fun, and I'm really interested now."

    My work here is done.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

"Of Personal Pronouns and Perennial Pronouncements . . ."

    Is it any wonder that so many Americans hold higher education in contempt these days?

    The University of Tennessee has announced that its faculty and students should stop using traditional, gender-based pronouns in order to "create a more inclusive campus."  Seriously, it's no longer enough that men can call themselves women and can have themselves surgically altered in order to resemble women, now the King's English itself must be modified in order to accommodate the deification of their delusions!  I can't make up something this silly, so here it is in its entirety from the official "Tennesseean" website:

University of Tennessee students have been asked to use gender-neutral pronouns such as "ze."
The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus, multiple media outlets report.
"Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth," the University of Tennessee's Pride Center Director, Donna Braquet, wrote on the university's website Wednesday.
Braquet requested that teachers, rather than calling roll, will instead ask each student to provide the name and pronoun he or she — or ze — wishes to be referred by. She says it relieves a burden for people expressing different genders or identities.
"The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses," Braquet wrote.
University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen said there is no mandate or official policy to use the language.
"The information provided in the newsletter was offered as a resource for our campus community on inclusive practices," Simsen said.
Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask.
"'Oh, nice to meet you ... What pronouns should I use?' is a perfectly fine question to ask," Braquet said.

   So instead of perfectly good words that have been standard practice in the English language for as long as there has been an English language, we get a jumble of letters created by some bureaucrat that mean absolutely nothing! And for what purpose?  Darned if I can tell.  Even if you are a transsexual, don't you want to be referred to by the gender pronoun that you "identify with"?  What is 'ze' anyway?  A straight man who dresses like a woman, a gay man who dresses like a woman, a straight woman who dresses like a man, or someone like my friend Josh who fervently claims he is a dolphin trapped in a man's body?  And what if someone whose personal bent is different from yours steals your pronoun of choice?  Do you fight a duel with rolled up copies of The San Francisco Chronicle on the college green for who gets to be 'ze' and who gets to be 'xe'?

   Bear in mind, according to Google, parents are paying $45,000 per semester for their kids to attend this university.  Is this what they want them to learn?  What, after all, is the purpose of college? At one time, it was to learn a valuable skill that you could then use to earn a better living for yourself than you could get without the degree.  Or perhaps just to explore a scientific or academic discipline that has always fascinated you, and try to do something practical with it.  But now it seems as if the purpose of many institutes of higher learning is simply to indoctrinate students with a boatload of leftist nonsense that has no practical application anywhere in life.  What's going to happen when these earnest young graduates go to their first job interview and ask the manager to refer to them as 'xim' rather than 'him'?  I doubt the result will be this young applicant being forwarded to the management fast track!

    Once upon a time, I got out of the Navy and attended a fine independent university in East Texas, earning a Bachelor's Degree, a teaching certificate, and a Master's Degree.  I was exposed to every conceivable point of view during that time.  I had professors who were Marxists and one who was an avowed monarchist (he had framed portraits of Louis XIV and Catherine the Great in his apartment!).  I had classmates who were gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, liberal, conservative, communist, and borderline fascist.  The beauty of the place is that we all sounded off on a regular basis, in the classroom and in the coffee shops, in our professors' presence and in their absence, about whatever came to mind.  We debated God and Darwin, Marx and Montesquieu, Locke and Lenin, with passion and force and silliness and all the earnestness that twentysomething adults can muster at that marvelous age when they know the exact solution to all the world's problems, if only someone would put them in charge.

   But today's college campuses have become a wasteland of soul-stifling political correctness and liberal intolerance.  While the movie GOD'S NOT DEAD is indeed fiction, look up the thirty or so lawsuits listed in the credits to see how those who hold traditionalist or Christian perspectives on almost any issue have been hounded, persecuted, and expelled for refusing to toe the line. All opinions are welcome in academia - unless they come from a traditional or religious perspective.  Then they must be shamed into a different way of thinking!

   One of the first things I teach in my government class is that free speech means FREE speech.  That includes speech that we disagree with, speech that disgusts us, speech that offends us.  If the most vile and obnoxious verbal expressions we can imagine are not just as protected as the most innocuous statements, then we are not a free society at all.  I may despise the hate-spewing idiots of Westboro Baptist Church, but I support their right to speak their minds.  Otherwise, the whole concept of freedom of speech is meaningless.  But more and more, our college campuses seem to be dominated by moronic thought police whose sole goal is to shame everyone who doesn't share their "enlightened" view of humanity into compliance.  Sorry, that's not what we are paying $45,000 a semester for our children to learn!

  At any rate, that's all I can make myself write about this nonsense for now.  Excuse me . . . no, sorry!

EXCUSE ZE!!!!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to School Days . . .

Wow, has it really been nearly two weeks since I last updated this blog?  Oh no!


I don't know how many of you have been waiting with bated breath to drink up the bon mots that flow forth from this fountain of scribbled insight, but I'm willing to bet that you've worked up a powerful thirst by now!  So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and know that your long wait is now ended.

  So what to write about?  I've been pretty busy lately . . . to use an old Texas phrase, as busy as a one-armed man with a bad case of poison ivy!  It's the beginning of school - a week of in-service followed by the kids coming back to class last Wednesday.  We're also caregiving for my mother-in-law, who is 87 and increasingly frail these days.  She broke her arm in a fall a few weeks back and needs our help to get around.  My Dad's health has also deteriorated over the summer, so I am checking in on him at the nursing home even more often than I normally do.  That's part of the season of life my wife and I are in right now - our girls are in college and more independent of us than they once were, but our parents need us more than ever.

   But the stress and worry of that situation is alleviated by my wonderful job - and no, that's not sarcasm.  I teach in a small private school, and I single-handedly comprise our History Department.  Once they hit junior high school, our students have me every single year.  I get to watch them grow up from seventh grade until they graduate, and it is a wonderful experience.  I have six regular classes plus one elective that I started teaching this year that meets twice a week.  Let me tell you about them.

First of all, there is Seventh Grade Texas History.  This is the "Happy Meal" of history classes - predictable, simple content that is still enjoyable and informative, with a great "toy" thrown in - the annual trip to the Sulphur River to collect fossils and Indian artifacts.  We cover the maps of Texas, the Indians, the Spanish, the Alamo, and Texas in the Civil War . . . it's always fun.  I'm still getting to know my Seventh Graders, but they seem to be a bright, fun-loving bunch with an interesting mix of personalities.

  Then there is 8th Grade U.S. History.  One of my favorite courses, content-wise, and this year's 8th grade class is lively, fun, smart, and sassy.  The girls are all well-read and belong to various TV show fandoms, and most of the guys love Star Wars - it's neat when you have a group of young people who are unashamedly willing to embrace their inner nerd.  What a cool group of young men and ladies!

   Ninth Grade is World Geography, a relatively new course for me (this is my 4th year to teach it).  I've learned a lot about the world these last 4 years and am having fun sharing it.  The freshmen are another great bunch to hang with - they are smart and full of questions about everything from politics to movies to why the Middle East is so messed up.

   Tenth Grade World History is probably my favorite content area of all.  I'm an absolute sucker for the ancient world, especially "the splendor that was Greece, the glory that was Rome."  And I get to share it ALL with them this year - from the campaigns of Julius Caesar to the tyranny of mad Caligula, and then we move on to Mohammed and Buddha, the Byzantines and the Han Dynasty, Henry VIII and his half dozen spouses to Peter the Great and his penchant for amateur dentistry.  Plus we watch some great movies this year - GLADIATOR, Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V, and the wonderful LUTHER with Joseph Fiennes in the title role.  Not to mention this is a very sharp, funny, and eclectic young people that keep me on my toes every day!

   Eleventh grade is Dual Credit U.S. History, a super-accelerated course that offers six hours of college credit by the end of the year.  I re-cover all of 8th grade history in the first semester, then in the spring we do a whirlwind tour from Reconstruction to the present.  I require the students in this class to write me one book review per quarter; I have a huge library that they can check out titles from.  It's always fun to watch as a student picks up David McCullough's 1776, or Barbara Tuchman's THE MARCH OF FOLLY, or perhaps Doris Kearne Goodwin's magnificent TEAM OF RIVALS, which I consider to be the best book ever written on Abraham Lincoln.  My juniors are a big class, full of life and fun, with some marvelously quirky personalities - and some amazing talents as well.

  Last of all, there is Senior U.S. Government.  It's a one semester course, but it's always more fun to teach in an election season.  I have a huge Presidential Election Leader Board drawn up, and I adjust the poll numbers once or twice a week to show who's up, who's down, and who's dropping out.  We cover everything from the Constitutional Convention to Roe vs. Wade in this class, and it's fascinating to watch as these now young adults form the political convictions that will guide them for a lifetime.  This year's group is a special bunch, and it's going to hurt to let them go - we've had a great journey together, but this last trip promises to be an entertaining ride.

  But wait!  There is one more class, something brand new, so much so that I am writing the curriculum as I go along this year - it's called MODERN AMERICA: Pop Culture, History, and Politics from 1980 to the Present.  I've lobbied for this course forever, since in teaching U.S. History 2 in the spring I very rarely get much past Viet Nam and Watergate.  Now at least some of my students will be instructed about the world their grandparents built and their parents grew up in.

  My days are full but joyous; the sound of "learnage" carries out my door and down the hall as we daily declare war on ignorance and come forth leaving a little bit less of it in the world.  On any given day, my students might discuss anything from the Trump phenomena to how crowded Japanese trains are to how three cigars may well have determined the outcome of the Civil War.  I tell them every year: "You may like me or not, you may like history or not, but I promise you one thing - you will never forget me!"  And for 20 years now, none of them have.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"And Now For Something Completely Different . . ."

Yes, I know, Monty Python said it first.
But I have put up a bunch of posts this summer about serious, heavy, and divisive topics.
Let's just have some fun this week!  Here is a review I wrote two years ago for one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.  So read my comments, then do yourself a favor and check out this hilarious film.  What film, you ask?  Read on:



Saturday night.  I am shuffling along the shelves at Hasting's, desperately seeking the kind of movie that restores your faith in humanity, revives your soul from the post-holiday doldrums, and fills you with that same wonderful sense of anticipation you get as you are about to pop a kitten into the microwave. Title after title went by - action flicks, same-o same-o slasher flicks, mindlessly stupid spoofs, romantic comedies that can drain every drop of testosterone from the room before the opening credits have finished rolling . . . I was near the end of the aisle, with no movie crying out to go home with me, and despair was filling my soul.

Then I saw it.  A shaft of heavenly light poured through the ceiling, and angelic voices sang a magical tune in my ear as the title glistened before me.  I fell to my knees at the sheer awesomeness of the concept.

What title, you ask?

ZOMBIE HAMLET!

I rushed to the front counter, clutching the precious DVD in my hand as I fumbled for my Hasting's card.
My hands trembled when I got home as I powered up the DVD player and prepared myself for the emotional and artistic experience of a lifetime.
But - could the actual film possibly live up to the awesomeness of the title?  Would it not be better for me to place it back in its case and merely bask in the imagined perfection of the concept, rather than hit the "Play" button and set myself up for the same kind of cruel, warped disappointment I experienced that time I mistook a garlic stuffed mushroom for a chocolate cupcake at a dimly lit dinner party?

NO!  I must see it!  Surely the filmmaker could not be so cruel, or so devoid of talent, as to make a movie unworthy of this magnificent title!

Vindication!  That is what I felt as the saga unrolled before my eyes.  Oh no, this movie was not merely a re-telling of Shakespeare's HAMLET, set during the Civil War, with zombies thrown in as a cheap marketing tactic to snag the youth demographic.  Oh no!  That would be clever, but not life-changing.  What the director of ZOMBIE HAMLET did was much bolder, much braver, much more daring - he made a movie about the MAKING of a movie version of Hamlet set in the Civil War with zombies thrown in as a cheap marketing ploy!
But this movie was more than that - it was so much more!

It has June Lockhart of LASSIE fame!
It has John De Lancie ("Q" from Star Trek!)
It has beloved African American character actor John Amos!
It has Shelly Long!
It has snoopy small town reporters and a sheriff with acting ambitions!
It has killer alligators!
It has voodoo loan sharks!
IT has cross-dressing, and disappearing dead bodies!
Romance! Action! Thrills!  Bad Checks!

For a bad movie lover, this was a life altering experience.  I am shaken.  I am stirred.  I am Bond . . . James Bond.
Or maybe I'm just turning blond! Who knows!

What I am saying is that this is the most amazing cinematic experience since SUCKER PUNCH.
YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE.

Do it for the zombies.
Do it for the children.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Post-GOP Debate Impressions . . .

(Normally I update once a week, but being a hard-core political junkie, and having watched both Republican debates yesterday, I thought I would share my impressions of the GOP field.)

OK, overall reaction to Round One. (For those who don't know, since there are 17 Republican candidates running, they split them into two debates rather than one interminable one. The 10 front runners aired at 8 PM on FOX; the 7 bottom contenders aired at 4 PM yesterday CST.)
No one killed themselves verbally. No huge gaffes, and a few home runs. Here is my impression of the bottom seven in no particular order:
Lindsay Graham - totally unelectable. The man is smart and says many things that I agree with, but he is boring, uninspiring, and just looks tired, like a preacher who quit believing long ago but still mounts the pulpit out of habit.
Carly Fiorina - Probably the most solid performer overall. Intelligent, articulate, with actual proposals and not just talking points. She may bump up from this one.
James Gilmore - who? I had not heard of him before this week and he said nothing particularly memorable. I doubt he'll make it into December.
Rick Perry - a very weak start, but he got stronger and more confident as he went along. I think his hour has passed, but he said some things that were motivating, and he is still quite charismatic.
Bobby Jindal - He had some very strong moments and a few weak ones. I like him on a lot of issues; I just don't think he has the charisma to inspire the masses.
George Pataki - he put up a solid performance, but he is probably too liberal overall for the GOP base. Still, he had some good moments.
Rick Santorum - I love this man. He is passionate, articulate, and unwavering in his core beliefs, many of which I share. I just don't know that he can win - but I think he would be a fine President if he did.


So that's my summation of the lower tier.

OK, after watching the big show, here are my thoughts:
Trump hurt himself tonight. Not with the hard core Trump Chumps, but his snarky, petulant attitude was a turnoff to independents, and his not-so-veiled threat to run as an independent and throw the election angered the audience. His refusal to apologize for his unconscionably rude treatment of women, and his ugliness to Megyn Kelly, will alienate women overall (a constituency that the GOP desperately needs to win!)  Bottom line, he is not a likable man and his constant insults to those he disagrees with are going to be his political death. I think he may have already peaked.
Rubio did a great job and had some real shining moments. He may have gotten the biggest bump out of this.
Cruz was better than I expected - I'm not a fan, but he had some great lines.  His passion is undeniable, but he's burned a lot of bridges.  Can he unite the party behind him after that?
John Kasich was very solid, and I think he is angling for either the VP slot or possibly Secretary of Treasury - either of which he would perform quite well.
Huckabee is a wonderful debater and had a solid night. I like this man, I always have. But he may be yesterday's news.  That being said, his closing remarks had everyone chuckling, even as he made a very serious point.
Walker got in some solid licks but didn't really shine.  He may be too bland for the job.
Rand Paul came across as testy and combative and I think Christie owned him on the exchange over NSA surveillance.
Chris Christie surprised me; I don't care much for him, but he gave some great answers and vigorously defended his record.
Ben Carson started off slow and soft-spoken, but really nailed the last question and gave the best closing statement of the night. I was favorably impressed with him.
Bush was rather bland most of the time, except for his "I'm my own man" speech, which was well done. He neither helped nor hurt himself.  He has a lot of money and has laid the groundwork carefully, but I don't think he can win.


    Overall, there was no one clear winner, but I think that both Trump and Bush damaged themselves a bit.  Fiorina may well be in the top 10 next time; if so, she will have earned it.  I will say it was a very solid, well-moderated debate, with some hard-hitting questions and nearly everybody had one good line or one shining moment. I will be very curious to see what the polls say over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Another One Bites The Dust!

     On October 9 of last year I sat down and began writing a story that I entitled LOVER OF GOD.  Usually, when I begin a novel, I have a pretty fair idea of where the story is going to go.  At least, I have a vague idea of how it will end, or what the major story arc is, or something.  This one, though, this story was elusive.  I had a great prologue, which was set much later in the story arc - but I had no idea how I would develop the characters, or what all would take place along the way. 
     But I set out on the journey anyway.  I knew who my main character was - Marcus Quintus Publius, a junior member of the Roman Senate during the reign of Claudius.  I envisioned this story as a loose sequel to THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, my first novel of the New Testament era.  It begins about ten years after Pilate's death.  I knew that Publius would wind up being an advocate for Paul and the rest of the Christian community caught up in Nero's persecution after the Great Fire of Rome - that's where my prologue began.  But how did he wind up in that position?  How did he become a Christian sympathizer?
   But, as I wrote, Marcus' career came together.  A young Roman aristocrat, his family murdered by the mad Caligula, Marcus winds up befriending the Emperor Claudius, who wants to atone for his nephew's horrible crime by helping Marcus rise up the cursus honorum, the chain of offices that all Roman noblemen were expected to occupy in their public career.  Marcus, a skilled legal advocate, winds up going on a mission from the Emperor to inspect the provinces which had been sorely neglected during Caligula's reign of terror.  In the course of his travels, Marcus meets and befriends the leaders of the early Christian movement, including Peter, John, and Paul of Tarsus.  He also meets Paul's companion, a Greek physician named Luke, who is composing an account of the life of Jesus.  Eventually, Luke dedicates his Gospel to this powerful Roman who has become a benefactor to the Christian community - albeit addressing him by the nickname Paul has given him, Theophilus - "Lover of God."  Once Nero becomes Emperor, however, Marcus is placed in a difficult position, and must choose between his place in Roman society and his love of God.
    All told, I am very proud of the way this one came out.  It provides the reader with a tour of all Rome's provinces and a fascinating look at an early stage of the church's development, when the Apostles were mostly still alive and preaching the Gospel throughout the Roman world.  I also spent a good bit of time developing the characters of Claudius and Nero, two of Rome's most fascinating rulers, relying heavily on the historical sources of the era.  The Roman world has always fascinated me, and I think I did full justice to both characters.
    As I usually do, I will now wait a month or so and let the story sit.  Then I'll start over from the beginning, reading and editing as I go through, until I get it into satisfactory condition.  Then I will sent it off to my publisher and hope they like it as much as I do!
    Look for my next novel, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH, coming out in December!