November 19, 2010


Question: Is the celebration of Christmas and modern Christmas traditions wrong?

Argument 1: Christians should not have a Christmas tree.

Evidence 1: The Bible warns against it

The bible warns against cutting down a tree and bringing it into your house to decorate it.
Jeremiah 10: 1 Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. 2 This is what the LORD says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. 3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”

Isaiah 44 also warns about cutting trees and bowing in front of them.
14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. … he makes an idol and bows down to it.

Jeremiah 3 warns against placing presents under a tree.
12 Go, proclaim this message toward the north: ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. 13 Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me”, declares the LORD.

Evidence 2: It is a pagan tradition

In addition to biblical references against it, the Christmas tree isn’t even a Christian tradition. Pagans of the past brought evergreens into their homes and decorated trees to celebrate the Roman feast of Saturnalia and to celebrate their god Bacchus. Some pagans would bring evergreen boughs into their home during the winter solstice because they thought they possessed magical powers to bring in spring. All other plant life would die as the days kept getting shorter. The pagans thought the evergreen held the answer to keep the earth from freezing over. Germanic people decorated trees to honor their god Woden (from which Wednesday gets its name). Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life, and holly, mistletoe, the Yule log, and the wassail bowl all come from these traditions and predate Christianity.

Early settlers of America and English Puritans condemned many Christmas decorations. The Yule log, holly, mistletoe, carols, and decorated trees were all preached against by Oliver Cromwell as “heathen traditions”. He argued they desecrated the sacred event of Christ’s birth. The second governor of the Pilgrims, William Bradford, tried to eliminate all such decorations during Christmas time, calling them “pagan mockery”.

So what is a good Christian to do? Should we purge our society of the Christmas tree?

Response to Evidence 1: The Bible does not warn against Christmas trees.

The Bible verses given above do not forbid Christmas trees. I argue, in fact, they don’t have to do with trees at all. Each is an example of taking a small snippet of scripture, taking it out of context, and then using it to back up your personal beliefs. A full reading of these chapters makes it crystal clear what God is trying to warn us against.
Jeremiah 10 God and Idols
1 Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. 2 This is what the LORD says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.

This refers to not being afraid of pagan gods. The people of Israel are told not to use the stars or moon as signs and be afraid. For the stars and moon are not gods and have no power, only the LORD is God.

3 For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. 5 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot talk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”

Clearly, this is referring to idol worship not Christmas trees. God says it is worthless to cut a tree, shape it into an idol and decorate it with Gold and silver. He explains that the idol has no power, it can not communicate, it can not move, because it is only wood. This passage would have the exact same meaning if stone was used instead of wood. “Do not go cut a stone, shape it, adorn it with gold and silver”. God is not warning us against trees or stones. He is warning us against making idols.

6 No one is like you, LORD; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. 7 Who should not fear you, King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise leaders of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you. 8 They are all senseless and foolish; they are taught by worthless wooden idols. 9 Hammered silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz. What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple— all made by skilled workers. 10 But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King. When he is angry, the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath. 11 “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’” 12 But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. 13 When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses. 14 Everyone is senseless and without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by his idols. The images he makes are a fraud; they have no breath in them. 15 They are worthless, the objects of mockery; when their judgment comes, they will perish. 16 He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the Maker of all things, including Israel, the people of his inheritance— the LORD Almighty is his name.

The rest of the chapter backs up the previous interpretation, that we are talking about idol worship not trees. Jeremiah compares the power of the LORD with the foolishness of wooden idols. He explains that idols are made by people and are powerless and will be destroyed. On the contrary, the LORD has real power and has created everything.

Isaiah 44, when read in context, quickly reveals that we are again being warned about idol worship. Trees are an irrelevant detail in the scripture, not the subject of it. In fact, the above scripture had to be drastically edited to get it to even sort of sound like trees were the subject. When read in its entirety, there is no real argument.

Isaiah 44: The LORD, Not Idols 6 “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. 7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come— yes, let them foretell what will come. 8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.” 9 All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. 10 Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? 11 People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame. 12 The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. 13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in human form, human form in all its glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. 14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. 15 It is used as fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me! You are my god!” 18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” 20 Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” 21 “Remember these things, Jacob, for you, Israel, are my servant. I have made you, you are my servant; Israel, I will not forget you. 22 I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” 23 Sing for joy, you heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, you earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the LORD has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.

Again, the passage is not talking about the sin of cutting down trees. If that is to be the interpretation of the passage, then one must also conclude that being a craftsman is bad, being a blacksmith is bad, being a carpenter is bad, planting trees is bad and burning wood for warmth or for cooking food is bad. No! God is revealing how silly it is to worship man-made idols. How can you worship something that you also use to cook your food? How can you worship something that grows outside and is watered by the rain? Idol worship is what the LORD hates, not tree cutting.

Finally, the passage in Jeremiah is speaking about the unfaithfulness of Israel, not about presents under a tree.
Jeremiah 3 Unfaithful Israel
6 During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. 7 I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. 8 I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. 9 Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. 10 In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD. 11 The LORD said to me, “Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah. 12 Go, proclaim this message toward the north: ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. 13 Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ declares the LORD. 14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. 15 Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

The LORD rebukes Israel for its unfaithfulness. He compares it to adultery. The use of trees is a metaphor to show how numerous the unfaithfulness is, “On every high hill and under every spreading tree”. If one interprets this passage to say we can’t do things under spreading trees (presents at Christmas) then shouldn’t we also outlaw doing things on top of high hills? This is an incorrect interpretation. The meat of this passage is to obey the LORD your God! For He loves us and wants only the best for us, like a husband or a shepherd.

After reading the full Bible passages, I feel there is no warning in the Bible about having a Christmas tree. The question remaining is: is having a Christmas tree in my house an idol? If a Christmas tree is an idol, then obviously the Bible says we shouldn’t have one. An idol is something greatly admired or loved to excess, or something that is worshiped as a god and believed to have supernatural powers. Personally, a Christmas tree does not meet any of these requirements for me. I do not admire the tree or think it has any power or purpose. However, maybe some Christians do believe that the Christmas tree has special powers. Perhaps they feel it brings good luck or good health or gets them closer to God. In these cases, I would strongly urge them not to have one in their homes. But absent those cases, I see no Biblical warning against having a Christmas tree.

Response to Evidence 2: It was a pagan tradition… so what?

Paganism comes from the Latin term paganus, meaning “country dweller”. We use it today as a broad term to refer to old polytheistic religious traditions. Throughout human history, our species have idolized hundreds of gods, observed thousands of traditions and created millions of symbols. The vast majority of these we won’t ever know about. Some, through archeology, we have discovered. The Bible contains numerous verses about not worshiping false gods. However, does using something that was once used in a pagan tradition equal to idol worship? I surely hope not! Thousands of things can be traced to pagan tradition: the cross, the fish symbol, candles, wreaths, giving gifts, crown of thorns, bonfires, hymns and carols, the word amen, the days of the week, the months of the year, the seasons, Easter, wedding rings, wedding veil, College/fraternity/society seals, astrology terms and signs, wisdom of the owl, leadership of the eagle, currency, the modern medical symbol, the military rank symbols, etc, etc, etc. An attempt to purge our lives of anything that may have a non-Christian history is an endless exercise. Would doing it make you closer to God or a better Christian? God wants us to put Him before everything else, not eliminate everything else but Him. Colossians Chapter 2 speaks specifically about this.
Freedom From Human Rules
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

The Christmas tree may have some pagan origins as explained. However, it also has some Christian origins. An early story about Saint Boniface in 722 says he encountered some pagans about to sacrifice a child at the base of a huge oak tree. He saved the child and cut down the tree. A fir tree then grew from the cut stump. He called the tree a holy tree, a symbol of God’s promise of eternal life. Another story says Martin Luther noticed the beauty of snow covered trees while in the woods so he took one home and decorated it with candles.

Another argument for the Christmas tree being okay is that the Bible shows other pagan traditions being changed to be about Christ. The most famous one, and one that Jesus himself did, is the taking of bread and wine. Jesus instructed his disciples to perform this in remembrance of Him. However, Jesus did not invent this. Eating sacred bread and wine probably comes from a festival celebrating ancient goddess Mithra and the sun god feasting together. Many people could have recognized this at the time. However, Jesus said that from then on, and for Christians, it represented his sacrifice for us. The fact that it was used previously in a pagan tradition did not bother Jesus. It should not bother us either.

My final argument, and perhaps the most convincing, is that ancient pagan traditions are not the original source. God created the earth. He created the fir tree. Pagan traditions of using trees as idols or in ceremonies are perversions of the original truth and the original Creator. Bowing before a tree in a pagan ceremony is a perversion of idolizing the created instead of idolizing the Creator. It can not be the other way around. The pagans didn’t get the fir tree “first”. So it can not be possible that using it now is bad. We are simply re-claiming it as belonging to the one true God!

So, in conclusion, I have no issue with heading out in a few weeks and getting a nice Christmas tree. We will decorate and set it up in our home and put our gifts under it for Christmas morning. I understand that the Christmas season is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christmas tree is simply a part of that celebration. HE is the reason for the season!

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November 9, 2010

Housing Bubble

There has been a lot of chatter about the possible upcoming "Higher Education bubble".
A bubble exists when the price for something continually outpaces the real value of it. Absent government intervention, products are subject to supply and demand. When irrational demand occurs for various reasons, bubbles are created. Eventually, they burst as the demand drops to normal levels but the supply remains high. The "value" plummets. This happens all the time and usually doesn't result in any problems at all because the scale is small.

A great current example is "silly bands". If you have kids you know about these. They are rubber bands in neat colors and shapes. They became extremely popular last year and just about every kid had to have one. The demand was very high, and whoever invented them became rich. Good for them, the American dream realized in a capitalistic society. However, what is the real value of a rubber band? Not much, maybe a few pennies. So selling these things for $1 each and kids trading them like money only works while demand is very high and supply is low. Today, you can buy these things everywhere. You can get a package of 25 at Walmart for $1. Every kid who wants one has one-hundred. Demand has dropped as the "fad" faded, but supply is still high. If you had bought $60,000 of silly bands last year, hoping to sell them for profit this year, you lost. This didn't cost the economy any headaches though, because not too many people where heavily invested in silly bands. Some kids may have wasted their allowance but not much else.

The housing bubble was another beast altogether. The problem occurred, in my opinion, because the laws of supply and demand were thwarted by government. This allowed the bubble to get huge. Really, really, really huge! Federal programs and federal lenders encouraged new loans at all costs. It was thought that the benefits of owning a home were so great that everyone should have one. New laws, new loan types, new regulations all came out to generate more mortgages. Investors all over the world bought them because the price kept going up and up and up. Looking at the data now, one can easily see the bubble. The chart below shows US median income in red. See the nice linear upward trend as we, on average, increase our standard of living and as inflation did it's thing? Now look at the blue line. This is the US median selling price for a home. It is going up at a steeper rate (homes getting bigger, fancier, materials costing more). But over the past decade it goes crazy, reaching an almost vertical slope as the price for a house skyrockets. This is the bubble.

We all remember this, some of us tried to buy houses at this time. I remember my cousin trying to buy a house. Looking at little, one bedroom, starter homes that were selling for over a quarter of a million dollars. Wow. This was completely unsustainable. Obviously, the price can not continue to outpace the income of people. This can only be done with more and more debt. We were lied to and told that our homes were "good debt" because the value goes up (it had every year for decades). But, finally, the insanity stopped as people, by the millions, could not pay for the loans they took out and demand dropped. Also, supply reached a peak as many thousands of homes were built and bought by investors and no-one was actually living in them. "Suddenly" we realized we have WAY too many homes, and WAY too much debt that no one could pay. Unfortunately, instead of a few kids loosing their allowance, we all lost. And governments lost. And business lost. And wall street lost. And banks lost. Anyone invested in housing lost. Hello recession of 2009.

So anyway, that was a lot of buildup. I thought we were talking about College?
The laws of supply and demand for higher education are currently being thwarted by the government. The true "cost" of college is being hidden. Governments are promoting more and more lending and cheaper and cheaper money to get everyone they can to attend college. We are told this is "good debt" because we need to go to college to better ourselves. The following chart again shows the US median income ("family" instead of "household", is a bit higher? but same general trend) in yellow. The blue line is the cost of a 4-year college.

Look familiar?!
The governments solutions to this have been exactly the opposite of what they should be. Similar to the housing bubble, they continue to promote college at all costs, coming up with new programs and new loans to get an ever increasing number of people to go to college at ever increasing debt levels. College costs can not continue to go up at this rate without a corresponding rise in income. Debt levels will continue to go up and up until we "break" the bubble. The worse case scenario may be the government takes over the higher education system altogether. The costs will then be "invisible" and are guaranteed to increase while service decreases with no competition.

I am not saying we shouldn't go to college. Just saying we need to carefully evaluate if we are going to get a good return on our investment. You have to be sure that your income after graduation is sufficient to justify the amount of debt. I.E. don't borrow $100K to become a school teacher. And check the placement rate for graduates with your desired degree. Do you only have a 50/50 shot at actually getting a job after graduation? Look for ways to reduce costs by starting at community or satellite colleges for the first couple of years, co-opting, paying as you go with a part-time job, online courses, etc. Also, don't go to college just because you think you should without a clear plan for graduation. It is too expensive just to hang out and take classes without even knowing what you want to get a degree in. Of course this is all pretty difficult when you are 18 years old. I learned this the hard way by getting a Chemical Engineering degree from Rose-Hulman instead of Purdue. I could have gone 4 years at Purdue for what I spent in a semester at Rose. I am paying for that mistake now, literally.

Is higher education the next bubble to burst? I don't know. College can be a very rewarding and beneficial investment in yourself and your future, just be careful not to go into $60,000 of student loan debt and be holding nothing but a bag full of silly bands in 4 years!
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