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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes

Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

What Drives a Cult Leader like David Koresh?

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Government had surrounded the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, embroiled in a stand-off that would last 51 days and tragically ended in gunfire with 75 of the 84 people inside dead, including children.

I was recently interviewed by Brody Harness for a research project he was doing on the siege and I thought these questions were very poignant and valuable to better understand the cult leader and others like him. Here's a copy of that interview.

Briefly, the Branch Davidians were a group of religious believers whose version of biblical theology was explicated by David Koresh. Many of their important beliefs, and the reason they lived communally at a compound, Mt. Carmel, centered on Koresh's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Can you shed light on this group directly (or perhaps generally) based on similar groups who focus on Revelations?

The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. The emphasis on the Book of Revelation comes from their focus on the end times scenarios. The term “Adventist” stems from the word advent which refers to the coming of Christ. Just as we celebrate Christ's first coming before Christmas and call it the season of advent, advent can also refer to His second coming. Most modern Adventist groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses find their origin in an early 1800's preacher named William Miller, who preached that Jesus would return in 1844. He became very popular and gained a wide following. The subsequent failure of Miller's prediction is known as The Great Disappointment.

When Jesus didn't return as expected, the “Millerites” (who preferred the name Adventists) started coming up with alternate explanations, such as Jesus had returned invisibly (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Jesus came into the heavenly Holy of Holies and ended the age of grace, and is now beginning his period of Investigative Judgment (Seventh-Day Adventists).

The Branch Davidians splintered off the SDA back in the 1930s when a leading Adventist in the Los Angeles area, Victor Houteff, began teaching the church wasn't being holy enough. David Koresh's mother was a member of a Texas SDA church and Koresh himself was also a member for a while, before being attracted to the Davidian sect. According to Apologetics Index,  Koresh claimed to be God's agent, (and ultimately taught his followers that he was divine) and instructed those that followed him to preparing themselves for Jesus's return.

Part of the governments “case” for treating the Branch Davidians as they did was the fact that David Koresh was legally married to a cult member when she was just 14 years old, and that he was fathering children with the wives of the other adult males, while banning all other sexual relationships within the church. The government felt children were endangered at Mt. Carmel by these practices which did not appear to be the case according to some sources close to the investigation; however, it did appear to reflect and elevate Koresh's psychological hold on the group. Can you discuss some of the dynamics of sex/family/religion practices? (Again, either specifically with the Branch Davidians, or generally in cults.)

Sex drove a lot of Koresh's desires. Even in the mid 1980s, Koresh began taking on multiple wives as he also started establishing himself as a leader within the Davidian movement. He was a polygamist and saw himself as taking a role akin to David in the Old Testament establishing the Davidic Kingdom of Israel (thus the Davidians portion of the name.)

Since David had multiple wives in the Old Testament, Koresh felt that justified him to also have multiple wives.  Of course, as his power and following grew, he became more and more self-absorbed, something that is typical of cult leaders. His doctrines “departed radically from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith”1 and he demanded total control over his followers, cutting off outside ties and subjecting them to various physical and mental abuses.2

There was a general belief by the FBI and ATF that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact and this was part of the federal government's decision making process which led to a military rather than law enforcement approach with the Branch Davidians. From what you know, was this assumption rational? Would it have been more rational in the 1993?

There are two pieces that powered the concern by the authorities at the standoff. The first is that David Koresh had a known history of violence, since he and some of his early followers took control of the Davidian compound in a gunfight with then-leader George Roden. But the biggest spectre in everyone's mind was the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. There, another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, took a large group of followers from California to the jungles of Guyana and created a commune. He ultimately convinced his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide placed in Kool-Aid. Those that didn't or were too young were forcibly given the poison.

The loss of those 908 people, along with the prior shooting of U.S congressman Leo Ryan who sought to investigate Jones' alleged human rights abuses gave the public grave concern that a similar event would take place in Waco.

I don't think we are any more or less likely today to come to a different conclusion. Religiously motivated actions have taken on a deeper suspicion in our culture. The powers that be may not jump immediately to a suicide cult assumption; I believe the suspicion would still exist. It is the aftermath and criticism of the Waco siege itself that tempers actions now.

When the government attacked, surrounded, and eventually destroyed the compound in 1993, the Branch Davidians interpreted all of the government's aggression as fulfillment of prophecy. Koresh probably contributed to the destruction of his community by insisting that they were being “tested” and if they left the compound they would lose their place in the kingdom to come. Koresh also provoked the ATF and FBI by repeatedly promising and stalling surrender to complete writing his own revelation which would be released publically. Is there a psychological profile, maybe narcissism or delusions of grandeur, which characterizes charismatic leaders like Koresh?

Absolutely. Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and even Joseph Smith all exhibit this kind of self-absorption. In all these cases, you have a single individual who tells others that he alone has the true and secret knowledge of God/salvation/eternity and everyone else needs to listen to him. As he gains adherents and adulation, it feeds his narcissism and for most groups one can see their doctrine devolve more and more.  With all the men above, their paranoia and desire for control escalated as well.

Finally, do you have thoughts about government (law enforcement) interference with the free practice of religion –like the Branch Davidians, or polygamists or other cults?
All rights have limits. Everyone recognizes one's right to free speech, but you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. Similarly, one's right to practice the freedom to worship does not include the physical abuse of children or child rape. The difficulty is in finding where that line begins and ends.
We all agree that keeping thirteen children half-starved in a shack with some chained to their beds is no longer simply exercising one's freedom of religion, but is homeschooling abuse? Is corporal punishment abuse? The questions get complicated pretty quickly.

For the most port, the government has given the benefit of the doubt to the religious organizations. Scientology is a good example of a modern day American cult who engages in psychological techniques and even imprisonment of its disobedient members that the government has not interfered with.

Any other ideas you would like to share on this subject?

The big thing to remember in Waco, Jonestown, and other cult situations is that these are fringe groups that were cults in both the religious and the sociological definitions. Those definitions are important, too, for one can be a cult sociologically but not have a religious basis. Charles Manson and the Manson family would be an example of a non-religious cult. Of course Manson used the Bible to try and justify his views, but he also used the Beatles and his followers were more concerned about race relations than become God's chosen.

Sociological cult leaders will use religion simply because it is easier to talk of mysteries where they can give their “inside knowledge” that gullible people will accept. Even Hitler used religion as a motivator.

For more on the making of a religious cult, see my articles:
Thanks for the interview! Let me know if I can be of any more help.

1. "The Branch Davidians." Christian Research Institute, 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.
2. Ibid.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Reckless Love and Why Words Matter in Worship

In 1996 the alt-rock band Dishwalla became a one-hit wonder with their catchy “Counting Blue Cars." The song isn't well known by its title as much as its chorus:
We said, "Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I'd really like to meet her.
And ask her why we're who we are."
Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I'm on my way to see her
So tell me, am I very far,
Am I very far now?
When I first heard the song, I remember how it was a bit jarring having the singer refer to God as a woman. We know that God is a spirit; which means he doesn't have male or female chromosomes. In fact, there are many places in scripture that portray God as feminine or motherly. God says in Isaiah 66:13-14 “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem." Hosea 11:3-4 paint a vivid picture of God as a mother cradling and feeding her children, and there are others as well. However, God has also in scripture consistently referred to himself exclusively through male pronouns. He explicitly uses the term father and it is clear that this is the proper way to refer to him. Christians don't write worship songs extolling Mother God.

Is God's Love Reckless?

I offer this example because of a recent trend in worship songwriting I've noticed. Many popular worship songs aren't very careful with their lyrics and how they portray God. One such song that has grown in popularity is the Cory Asbury song “Reckless Love," published by Bethel Music. A lot of people have bristled at the song's hook. Should we caricature God's love as reckless?

I know that other song have tied God's love to negative actions, such as equating it to the destructive power of a hurricane or one drowning in an ocean. I don't believe such word choices are an attempt to make God an evil force. I believe the writers are earnestly trying to describe a feeling of overwhelming awe about God's mercy and power in their lives, though they seem to lack the vocabulary to say it in that way. They cheat a bit and their analogies bring a picture of breaking apart rather than building up. Still, since those are analogies I don't protest too much.

However, when a worship song teaches that one the attributes of God is recklessness, then the issue is more important and we need to think through what this may mean. To be reckless, as it has been defined, is to be "utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution, careless." Can God be in any way unconcerned with consequences? Can a holy God be without caution? Can a God who has defined himself as the very essence of love be careless? To use the term brings the very defining features of how God has revealed himself to be under question. And given that the worship we sing is a form of teaching in the church, the words we choose in our worship songs fall under the same admonition of James 3:1 and require a greater strictness.

What about the Positive Aspects of Recklessness?

In discussing this with others some have offered a different take on the word reckless. One friend asked :
But what about these:
  • "Giving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
  • "Serving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
  • "Loving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
When taking the term "Reckless Love" and looking at it in the context of the rest of the lyrics, it's clearly used in the positive sense of the word.
I still don't think this works, and here's why. There is a type of giving that is utterly unconcerned about consequences, such as when someone gives an addict a $100 bill or when parents give their children whatever they ask. That is reckless giving because the consequences of those gifts will actually harm the recipient. In giving, Paul teaches us to be intentional (2 Corinthians 9:6-8) and also that the one who doesn't work shouldn't simply be given food (2 Thess. 3:10). So, it isn't careless giving but thoughtful giving. Similarly, one can serve recklessly. It may be as benign as finishing your child's homework or as dangerous as aiding them in covering a crime or enabling an abuser.

In each of the sentences above, the word that may be used is selfless, not reckless. Selflessness means we ourselves feel it when we give or serve yet value others more. But word matter. Recklessness is not selflessness. So my response is:
  • Giving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action = spoiling
  • Serving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action = aiding and abetting
  • Loving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action= dependency
So to describe God's love as reckless reduces God to at best fallible and at worst dependent. Again, I don't believe the writers or the people who sing the song are intending to this, but one cannot reconcile recklessness with a perfect God.

The Importance of Words and Their Meanings

Words are important. Christians recognize this when we discuss issues like homosexual unions. We recognize the word marriage has a specific meaning and that marriage at its core means the joining of a man and a woman. Christians balk at how popular culture seeks to redefine the term to fit their opinion. We would likewise balk at an attempt to label God as transgender simply because he has spoken off himself with motherly tendencies. The word reckless also has a real meaning. When we try to use that attribute of God, we are trying to pour a new meaning into the word, but it then affects the very idea of God to the listener.

I don't think anyone would cheer a worship song that extols God the Mother. Yet, there is more scriptural support for that phrase than there is for God being reckless in any aspect. Let's face it, entitling a song “Reckless Love" is a little bit of clickbait. The writers want people to ponder the incongruity of the phrase. Yet, this is exactly where caution should be exercised more. Accuracy over intrigue, especially when discussing something as central as God's character, is what is called for. Even if I'm wrong, the very fact that so many are concerned about its message should at least caution us to avoid the song for fear that the danger of misrepresentation is a real one (1 Cor. 8:7-13) .

I can sum up my argument in the following sentence: “Reckless Love" delivers reckless theology brought about by a reckless use of language. I don't think anyone can honestly read that sentence and believe that I've just given the song a compliment. And if that's true, perhaps it's time to rethink teaching that God's love is reckless to our congregations.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Interview with Sean McDowell

One of the first popular apologetics books released was Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict in 1972. But much has changed in the forty-five years since that initial publishing. Now, Sean McDowell has partnered with his father to release a completely updated and revised Evidence for the 21st century. In this interview, Lenny and Sean discuss how the new content and contributions from dozens of the latest scholars make this a new staple in apologetics reference books for years to come.
You may download the inteview ansd listen later by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Three Ways The Last Jedi Reflects Troubling Trends in Culture

It should be no surprise that The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, is by all measures an instant success. I went to see the film and was optimistic based on the initial buzz and reviews. And while I didn't walk away hating the movie, I didn't walk away for the theater inspired or excited as I had after the A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back.

Then something funny happened. The more I thought about it, the more the film began to bother me. After a second viewing, I became more convinced that there are some serious worldview issues with The Last Jedi that sit at direct odds against the original trilogy. I want to go over three of them with you below. However, in order to do so, there will be spoilers so stop reading now if you haven't yet seen the film.

1. Faith and tradition are disposable

Most people know that George Lucas was a friend and fan of Joseph Campbell and his teaching on universal myth. Campbell knew that the traditions and teachings passed from one generation to the next shape humanity. Lucas picked up on this in his original saga; Luke Skywalker typifies Campbell's mythic hero.

Yet in The Last Jedi, the accumulated wisdom of experience over millennia doesn't matter. In fact, what's called for is a clean slate. Writer and director Rian Johnson shows this time and again with his “burn down the canon” script. The most telling scene in the film is that Luke, The Last Jedi Master, has been hiding away on the very planet that contains the original texts laying the foundation for the Jedi faith. He is shown as their guardian, but he is contemplating destroying them so the Jedi faith would be no more. He worries that the faith can be abused and therefore be an origin for evil as well as for good. Luke thinks that by ridding the world of the Jedi, he will likewise rid the world of the Sith.

Such a point could've been a rich vein for development. However, Johnson takes away the opportunity for thoughtful discussion and instead has the apparition of Yoda set fire to the texts himself, justifying it to Luke by asking “Have you read them? Page-turners they were not.”

I think the scene is indicative of the modern view towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. Christians are called “People of the Book” because of the central place Scripture holds in instruction and training in righteousness. The Bible tells us that human beings are born with a nature that gravitates toward evil. We learn that selflessness rather than our natural drive towards selfishness is the proper attitude to hold. But if it doesn't entertain us—if it isn't a page turner—then get rid of it. It's the modern attitude of “tl;dr yet I can comment on whether it's valuable or not.”

2. You don't really need to put in years of work to be competent

Much has been made about how quickly Rey became proficient with the Force. She can match any of Snoke's Praetorian Guard, theoretically the best of the best that Snoke could muster. Heck, on the island she is able to duel against Luke Skywalker and come to a draw. We saw Luke continue to try and fail to lift even one rock via the Force during his training, yet Rey is able to remove a landslide immediately without pause. Yet, given the timeline of the events in the film and how Rey had to get back to the action, she couldn't have been gone more than a few months at most. Her training seemed to last only days.

The concept of instant gratification is endemic in our culture. So many people today believe that happiness and comfort are the default position and any tragedy or hardship means someone else is holding you back. That isn't how the world works. The security you enjoyed growing up came at the expense of years of your parents' sacrifice and toil, working day by day for the eventual success they then enjoyed. There are no cheat-codes to life.

3. Men are inconsequential

The most obvious message The Last Jedi sends is the one that Johnson clearly sought to send, that is that men offer nothing uniquely beneficial to society. The main protagonist, Rey, is female. So are all the leadership of the Resistance. Kylo Ren and Snoke are bad guys and are men. The double-dealing code-breaker is a man. The arms dealer is a man.

Even in the first few moments of the film I had a hard time believing that only women would be in the top levels of command. As the film progressed, its agenda became more overt and more satirical. It is the women in this film who time and again save the day while the men just mess everything up. Poe is a hotshot who recklessly expends a number of lives taking out a ship that makes no difference in the rest of the film. His later plans are shown to be useless as Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo had a plan in the works all along. Even Finn, in his bravado charging the enemy, needs to be saved by Rose.

The egregiousness of this fiction is distressing. Men have long been the punching bags of media. War is an ugly thing, but it is and has always been men who time and again put their lives on the line to protect us from the evils that threaten our way of life. Men would willingly die to save women and children because they understood the weaker needed protection by the stronger. But now our society says the unique thing that makes men men is itself dangerous. It needs to be checked and men need to behave more like women. When you take away a man's self-understanding as provider and protector, you rob him of his place in the world. Why then would men in this or future generations stand up and put their lives on the line when a real enemy threatens?

Image courtesy LearningLark [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, January 01, 2018

Two Jan 1 Law Changes Show How Jesus Changed Everything

January 1 marks the beginning of a new year and with it the promise of new opportunities to better ourselves. Of course the beginning of the New Year means many new laws begin to take effect. This has been true ever since Julius Caesar changed the calendars back in 45 B.C. when January 1 first marked the beginning of the year. Just three years later following Caesar's assassination, it was on January 1 that he was posthumously proclaimed divine by the Roman Senate.

The move to make Caesar divine was a political one. Caesar's grand-nephew and heir Octavian wanted to capitalize on Caesar's popularity with the common people and leverage it in his favor as he engage in a power struggle for the empire against Caesar's enemies. After his success, Octavian became known as Caesar Augustus ("the venerable") which "had a religious significance as designating one worthy of reverence, and marked him as more than man."1

The act of declaring Caesar a god was a key moment in the history of Rome. The Romans, unlike the Greeks, Egyptians, and other eastern cultures didn't have a tradition that a ruler would be a descendant of the gods.2 They held Romans to be superior to all other groups, and like all other cultures of their day, believed the aristocracy was superior to the underclass. But they didn't see the Roman leadership as direct descendants of the Roman pantheon.3 It was Octavian's political maneuver that established the Roman Imperial Cult where the emperor would be worshiped as divine. Later Caesars actually began to believe their own propaganda, and grew even bolder in their proclamation of being from the gods.

Another January 1 Wathershed Law

January 1 marks the anniversary of another watershed law, this one more recent in history. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave an executive order affecting more than three million people in the Civil War-torn United States south. The Emancipation Proclamation as it is known officially declared "all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons." While the Civil War wouldn't be settled for another two years, Lincoln's executive order legally marked the end of slavery in the United States of America.

The contrast between these two acts is interesting. Both of these laws affected the history of civilization. One sought to elevate a man above other men. The other sought to recognize the equality of all men. While both gave their proponents certain political advantages, one ultimately resulted in more human suffering and enslavement of other cultures while the other brought freedom and dignity to a previously repressed group. What changed? Why is there such a difference in the basic view of human beings?

The unifying force between these two is Jesus. The true God-man came into the world of one who claimed himself to be divine and leveraged it to spread His message that all men are equally valuable. Instead of demanding worship from others, He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross so that all men of every race would be set free from the slavery of sin and death.

As we jump into a new year, you will certainly see many new laws take effect. Some of them are selfish in nature, seeking to bolster our personal pleasures without regard for the wider effects on society. Others are more magnanimous. But don't forget about Christmas just yet. Without the Emmanuel, without the God with Us, it might be that New Year's would only mark the beginning of another period of forced worship to one more of the various despots human nature has always produced. And that is nothing with celebrating.


1. Henry Fairfield Burton. "The Worship of the Roman Emperors." The Biblical World, vol. 40, no. 2, 1912, pp. 80–91., doi:10.1086/474622.
2. Burton, Ibid.
3. Burton, Ibid.
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