Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Tragedy of Whitney Houston’s Christian Life

On 11 February 2012 Whitney Houston passed away in a Beverly Hills hotel room. I must admit that I was saddened by the news, partly because Whitney came to fame during the period when I was growing up, and so she was someone whose music I knew, but mainly because Whitney was a singer who claimed to be a Christian. Her life turned into a great tragedy. Starting off with many hopes and dreams, it seems that she mixed with the wrong crowd, and she suffered greatly as a result. Whitney started off a Christian, but many are wondering now if she finished one. In the end it is God’s prerogative to determine each person’s eternal destiny, but we can say that Whitney definitely gave in in a significant way to the efforts of the world to reeducate her.

It is a choice that every Christian has to make. Am I going to live out Christian truth? Am I going to live out my faith? Or am I going to join the crowd, and give in to the world? It is a choice that every single Christian has to make every day: to follow the cross or to follow the crowd?

The tragedy of Whitney Houston was that of a young Christian girl growing up and coming under the influence of the world, leading to mental and ultimately physical destruction. She started off proud of the fact that she was a Christian, that she grew up in the church, singing gospel songs. She wanted to sing in order to praise God for his gift of music. She once said, “God gave me a voice to sing with”; and sing she did!

Yet many Christians found it hard to believe that in the early 90s she got involved with Bobby Brown, an R&B singer and part-time rapper, who at the time did not have a good reputation. Brown had started out singing with the R&B boy band New Edition, but he was reportedly voted out of the band because the other members were concerned about his lewd and disorderly antics on stage.

Something of Brown’s attitude to life can be captured in his hit single My Prerogative, which was written by Bobby in 1988, reportedly in response to being booted off from New Edition: “They say I’m crazy. I really don’t care. That’s my prerogative! They say I’m nasty, but I don’t give a damn. Getting girls is how I live!”

About a year after these words were penned, Whitney met Brown at the Soul Train Music Awards. Eventually in 1992 they got married. The result? Over time Whitney slid deeper into drugs. In her interview with Oprah in 2009 Whitney confirmed that she and Bobby used to regularly smoke marijuana laced with cocaine. There were reports of incidents of domestic violence, and Whitney became increasingly erratic in her behavior. All of this took a toll on her voice, and basically destroyed her career as a singer.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her husband, Whitney was drawn away from God and into the dark side. It seems to me that she lost sight of the supremacy of the kingdom of God, and of her need to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. She basically allowed herself to be reeducated by the world, and paid a terrible price. This is also something that Whitney’s saw happening. In the interview with Oprah, Whitney talked about a time when her mum came to her house with the police, trying to rescue her daughter. She said to Whitney, “I’m not losing you to the world. I’m not losing you to Satan … I want my daughter back.”

Whether at the end of her life, Whitney genuinely turned back to God, only God ultimately knows. The evidence suggests that Whitney was still doing drugs up until the time of her death; and the official cause of her death has been determined as probably being an overdose of “a narcotic substance [probably cocaine], prescription medications, over-the-counter medications and alcohol.” But even if Whitney was right with the Lord when she died, we definitely have to say that she was mangled by the world, and never fully recovered. Her life was a tragedy, but it also stands as a warning about what can happen to Christians if we allow ourselves to be reeducated by the world.

The simple fact of the matter is that all Christians are living in the world, which means that it is very easy to be tempted by the world, and to forget that the ultimate reality is the kingdom of God. To what extent is what happened to Whitney happening to other Christian people today? Following Whitney’s death, it is legitimate to ask: Am I slowly being lost to Satan? Am I paying more attention to the crowd, to the fashion, music, and way of life of the world, rather than following in the way of the cross? Have I gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, seeking to fit in with the world, somehow forgetting what it means to live as a Christian?

We can go through some of the marks of compromise with the world: Following your friends to parties where all sorts of ungodliness goes on because you reckon that that’s what’s cool; using language however disguised that uses God’s name in vain, or that is full of “f this, f that” and other expletives just because your friends talk that way; paying more attention to the messages of the world communicated through music and movies and videos than to God and his word; thinking that romantic love is a matter of doing stuff with your boyfriend or girlfriend without ever thinking about the importance of commitment as expressed through marriage; getting romantically involved with whomever, regardless of whether they have the same beliefs as you. How can a Christian ever be one flesh with someone who does not care about the kingdom of God?

I wonder: how many times in her marriage to Bobby did she regret getting involved with him? Imagine if Whitney had met someone for whom the kingdom of God was important. It is possible that her life and the length of her career could have been very different to what we know today. In talking to Oprah about her decision to divorce Bobby, Whitney said: “I wasn’t going to be in an unholy matrimony. I wasn’t going to be living with a man who decided that he wasn’t going to live the same way I did, or thought about marriage and me the same way... being loyal, being dedicated, being true, being faithful … all those things. I wasn’t going to live with someone like that.” Sadly, this realization of incompatibility between her values and those of Bobby came eighteen years too late. It makes me wonder: if only she had seen earlier the incompatibility between the kingdom of God and Bobby’s belief in his own prerogative.

Christians need to remember that the kingdom of God will replace all human empires, and rule the world forever. God’s kingdom is the ultimate reality. We should not despise this truth by the way we live our lives. As Jesus taught us: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33).

In the words of one of Whitney’s last songs: “As I lay me down, Heaven hear me now. I’m lost without a cause, after giving it my all. Winter storms have come, and darkened my sun. After all that I’ve been through, who can I turn to? I look to you. I look to you. After all my strength is gone, in you I can be strong.” I hope that these words were close to her heart on the day that her earthly life slipped away.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Word of God as the Conceptual and Historical Pivot of the Bible

If the major theme of Gen 1 is the enlightening, ordering, and life-giving power of the word of God (see my post “The Generation of Light, Order, and the Fullness of Life through God’s Word”), then this suggests that the Bible is concerned in large part with the word of God. The Bible, which is the word of God, is concerned to testify about the word of God as revealed to Adam, the patriarchs, Israel, and ultimately the word of God as it was and is being revealed to all the nations of the world through Jesus, who is in himself the ultimate expression of the word of God.

This concern with the word of God in Gen 1 suggests that the concept of the word of God can be thought of as being the fulcrum around which the storyline of the Bible pivots. The Old Testament is concerned to record the predominantly negative response of Adam and the people of Israel to the word of God that was revealed to them, whereas the New Testament is concerned to record the beginnings of the predominantly positive response of all of the nations of the world to the supreme expression of the word of God as revealed through Jesus.

The fact that the word of God is the conceptual pivot of the Bible also helps us to see how Jesus is the historical pivot of the Bible. Jesus’ ministry on earth marked the point of transition in human history from the primarily negative human response of disobedience to the word of God recorded in the Old Testament, to the primarily positive human response of faith in the supreme expression of the word of God as revealed in Jesus, which the New Testament is concerned to proclaim.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Is the King James Bible the Only True Translation?

There are Christians who believe that the King James Version of the Bible is either the best or even the only legitimate translation of the Bible. It is ironic that these views are not consistent with the views of the translators of the KJV itself, as expressed in the original (1611) edition of the KJV in the preface entitled “The Translators to the Reader.” Please note that the spelling of the words in the series of quotations below from this preface has been modernized.

The translators of the KJV basically argue in the preface (among other things) that every translation of the Bible should be considered to be the word of God. In their argument they use the example of the Septuagint. As a translation the LXX was deficient in many respects, yet it was treated by the apostles as being the word of God:

“we do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession … contains the word of God, nay, is the word of God … A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life … also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word … notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it … The translation of the Seventy differs from the Original in many places, neither does it come near it, for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it … which they would not have done … if it had been unworthy the appellation and name of the word of God.”

The translators of the KJV saw their translation of the Bible as being one stage in a larger endeavor of Bible translation that involves the production over time of many translations in various languages leading to the saving of souls throughout the world. They believed that the production of new translations was necessary:

“how shall men meditate in [the Scripture], which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept closed in an unknown tongue? … it is necessary to have translations … Many men’s mouths have been open a good while … and ask what may be the reason, what the necessity of the employment [in making a new translation]: … blessed be they, and most honored be their name, that break the ice, and give the onset upon that which helps forward to the saving of souls. Now what can be more available thereto, than to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they understand? Since of an hidden treasure, and of a fountain that is sealed, there is no profit.”

The translators of the KJV also believed strongly in the value and necessity of the ongoing work of comparing existing translations with the original texts, a work which requires the emendation of these translations where the need arises:

“before we end, we must answer a third cavil and objection of theirs against us, for altering and amending our translations so oft … to whomever was it imputed for a fault … to go over that which he had done, and to amend it where he saw cause? … If we will be sons of the Truth, we must consider what it speaks, and trample upon our own credit, yea, and upon other men’s too, if either be any way an hinderance to it.”

The translators of the KJV also included marginal notes in their translation, because they understood that not all of God’s word is necessarily equally clear in its sense, given our current level of knowledge of the original languages:

“Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point … it has pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation … but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence … it is better to make doubt about those things that are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain … [just as a] variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary.”

Therefore, it does not seem from the words quoted above that the translators of the KJV themselves believed that their translation should be considered to be unique in terms of its quality or authority. In a very real sense, they saw their translation as being just one (good) translation among many, one important step in the ongoing process of delivering God’s book to God’s people in a tongue which they can understand.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Human Beings as Development Officers for the Kingdom of God

Genesis 1 tells us that God is a God who has chosen to move from negative to positive. Specifically, in the creation of the world, God moved the world from darkness to light, from disorder to order, from emptiness to the fullness of life … through the power of his word and Spirit. The tenfold and God said of Gen 1 testifies that God created the universe through his word, and that the key to life in this universe is the word that created this universe, the word of God the Creator.

If God is into movement—moving his world from darkness to light, from disorder to order, from emptiness to fullness, from non-life to life—and if this is achieved through God’s word, then we have to say that God’s word is the key to the development of the universe. This means that God’s word is the key to the development of God’s purposes for Planet Earth and the human race.

It is important to note that Gen 1–2 communicates the idea that God has enlisted the human race to participate in this divine plan for the world. God created the world with a view to its development; and God wants us, in fact he created us human beings, to play an important part in its development. Human beings can be thought of, therefore, as being development officers for the kingdom of God.

Governments around the world have established agencies to promote sustainable world development, but without the word of God at their heart any development that these agencies may be able to achieve will not be sustainable from God’s eternal perspective. If the account of Gen 1–2 is true, then true world development must be connected in with God’s word.

Our job description as development officers for the kingdom of God is given in Gen 1:28. This verse has been called the creation mandate or sometimes the cultural mandate, because it describes our task as human beings: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). In summary: have babies, and fill the earth, taking the rule of God with you as you go.

In effect the job of the human race from the beginning has been to spread out throughout the whole world, expanding the borders of the garden of Eden as we go. Our job is to build the kingdom of God on earth as the human population increases by taking the enlightening, ordering, and life-giving power of the word of God out into all the world.