Saturday, January 16, 2010

JW Study Meeting #31

As with the last meeting, Uriah and Shem arrived at 2:00 PM. First came the typical obligatory chitchat at the beginning and some hammering out of details regarding the circuit assembly. I learned, for example, that every year, they have one two-day circuit assembly (that's the one coming up), another one-day circuit assembly, and then a 'special' assembly that sounded intriguing and evidently is more specifically tailored to the immediate needs of the circuit in question, such as moral issues relevant to those congregations. As Uriah put it, "If a bunch of us are starting to get drunk and axe-murder people, then it'll deal with that. Stuff like that." (I'm starting to get the feeling that I live in a particularly exciting circuit...) Uriah also mentioned once again that the seats at the circuit assembly are much more comfortable than the ones we sat in at the district convention. He also pointed out how nice it is to have the baptisms displayed on a large screen, because everyone who gets baptized will generally have at least a few people who want to watch, and that adds up to a substantial crowd.

When we eventually turned back to the chapter, Shem read paragraphs 12 and 13 first. By this point in time, I had realized that I was feeling rather light-headed today and was probably not going to be nearly as capable as usual of actually thinking carefully through my answers, and I admitted as much to them. (This also means that I was feeling even more non-confrontational than usual, which you may see reflected in my record of the discussion.) These paragraphs and the next one dealt largely with how, according to Jehovah's Witnesses, their preaching ministry is the direct fulfillment of Daniel 12:4 ("And as for you, O Daniel, make secret the words and seal up the book, until the time of [the] end. Many will rove about, and the [true] knowledge will become abundant"). Contrast this, first of all, with the way contemporary dispensationalist 'end-times' gurus tend to interpret this verse--in which the word "true" of course never appears, but rather is a JW addition to the text--with reference to modern advances in technology and science. As for the ensuing conversation:

Uriah: "How has 'true knowledge' become abundant in this 'time of the end'?"

JB: Well, no matter how, exactly, you interpret the verse in question, it's undeniable that the truth of God's message is being spread. By whom, where, when... One thing you can't deny is that it is being spread.

Uriah: Okay.

JB: The message is going forth.

Uriah: Right. So what we-- what we agree on here is, the prophecy inspired by God did come true-- has-- is coming true, and God will not fail to make this known as the system winds down. The devil's not gonna overpower him.

JB: Right.

Uriah: Okay, good. We both know different things that the devil has tried and keeps trying, and he's not winning. God is going to have his will done. Okay! That was easy. Okay...

At that point, I read paragraph 14 (and for anyone who's for some reason following along in their copy or anything, this is page 92 of the JW publication What Does the Bible Really Teach?) for the group. That one focuses more on how, in their belief, Jehovah's Witnesses are the ones fulfilling the passage (as well as ) because of their ministry. In the paragraph, they assert:
Throughout the earth, the good news of the Kingdom--what the Kingdom is, what it will do, and how we can receive its blessings--is being preached in over 230 lands and in more than 400 languages. Millions of Jehovah's Witnesses zealously preach the Kingdom good news. They come from "all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues." (Revelation 7:9) The Witnesses conduct free home Bible studies with millions of people who want to know what the Bible really teaches. What an impressive fulfillment of prophecy, especially since Jesus foretold that true Christians would be "objects of hatred by all people"!--Luke 21:17.
When Uriah asked the book's assigned study question ("How widespread is the preaching of the Kingdom good news today, and who are preaching it?"), I replied that of course I know that we'll have some disagreements as to who's doing the work and how well (not to mention exactly how directly contemporary developments relate to biblical prophecy), but we can move beyond that to rejoice that the work is being done. Since my church recently had a guest speaker who talked to us about the word of Wycliffe Bible Translators, I managed to get us onto the topic of Bible translation. Uriah talked quite a bit about how "the Society" has computer programs that can assist in translating from one language to another--I remember seeing some of this in more primitive form on one of the videos I'd watched a while back, in which the computers being used are absolutely archaic by modern standards. We talked about the languages out there that have yet to receive any of the Bible. I personally suspect that when What Does the Bible Really Teach? boasts of the "more than 400 languages" in which they're working (Uriah suspects that it's risen to maybe 500 since then, but since there are around 6,909 known living languages, that's still a pittance), every single one of those has already been reached by more orthodox missionaries. When I asked, Uriah said (but wasn't sure) that in most cases the Watchtower probably translates the English New World Translation into other languages, rather than working anew from Hebrew and Greek texts. (I won't pass judgment on this, since Wycliffe Bible Translators probably does the same and I'm sure they're doing fine work, even if I imagine that the distant future will require better translations from the original text itself. Both Wycliffe Bible Translators and the folks at the Watchtower do purportedly check their results against the Hebrew and Greek.) However, he also asserted that the New World Translation in English was itself translated directly from Hebrew and Greek, which I find possible but suspect. When we finally returned to the question at hand, Uriah found that perhaps we have a bit of agreement after all:

Uriah: Okay, well, you and I completely agree on paragraph 14 as far as when we say who's teaching it, we can agree that it's people who use the Bible.

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: Yeah. [Not (?)] Muslims, Hindus... Mormons... [laughs] It's people who use the Bible that's inspired by God without adding or subtracting anything from it.

JB: Yeah.

Uriah: Good. Okay-- Because, you know, there's groups that are doing it that are sincere [...] the right thing. We don't personally believe they're the right group, but they are sincere; they're doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Shem then read paragraph 15, which started a concluding section entitled "What Will You Do?" (Paragraphs 12-14 had comprised a section called "Positive Developments!", in contrast to the overriding negativity of, well, pretty much everything before that in the chapter. Paragraph 15 essentially, after the preceding material, finally announces that it's sure that we've reached the very end of this system of things; and it was followed by a two-part question:

Shem: "Since so many Bible prophecies are being fulfilled today, do you not agree that we are living in the last days? After the good news is preached to Jehovah's satisfaction, 'the end' is certain to come. [(Matthew 24:14)] 'The end' means the time when God will get rid of wickedness on earth. To destroy all who willfully oppose him, Jehovah will use Jesus and powerful angels. [(2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)] Satan and his demons will no longer mislead the nations. After that, God's Kingdom will shower blessings upon all who submit to its righteous rulership.[--Revelation 20:1-3; 21:3-5.]"

Uriah: "Do you believe that we are living in the last days, and why?"

JB: Well, I believe that we've been living in "the last days" since the times of the apostles.

Uriah: Okay.

JB: So in that sense, I can answer, "Yes, I believe that we are living in the last days."

Uriah: Yeah. (?)

JB: I believe that first and foremost because the New Testament has already declared these are the last days that we're living in. I also believe that we're living in the last days because time is moving on, and no matter when the final consummation is going to come, it's getting closer and closer every single second. That's something I think that is probably not a matter of controversy here.

Uriah: Right, right.

JB: We need to be prepared for it when it does come.

Uriah: Right! You know, when I talk about this with people... Let's say that human beings have been on the earth for 6000 years, give or take-- you're, what, how old are you?

JB: Twenty-one. And twenty-two maybe... next week? Couple of weeks.

Uriah: Okay. Let's say you're 22. And let's say that science marches on, the medical profession starts doing what it can - which is kind of a joke [laughs] - for the betterment of mankind, and you're already civilized, you know about hygiene and all that, let's say you live to a hundred years old, 'cause that gets to be the life expectancy [...]. You're already 22, so that gives you only 88 years left. That's how close the end is, for you personally. It's in the next 88 years. And [Shem] and I have less! [laughs] It's closer for us. If we're going to use 100 as our date of death and that's all we can do to serve God. So if you look at the 6,000 years and the 88, it's close! It's real close. If we go to Timothy, and see what people are going to be like in the last days, we know it's even closer than that. I doubt that you're going to reach 100 in this system of things. Or 30. I personally doubt it, but I don't know. I don't know. But if we look at what the Bible's telling us, if we do an in-depth study of Revelation, I think-- like you and most people, even people who aren't religious, know that something's coming, something's changing, uhh... Talk to people who are 50 years old, ask them what it was like when they were a kid, things are getting worse faster.

I'll omit Uriah's extended discourse about how generations of farmers used to follow in their fathers' footsteps but no longer do because the skills utilized by one generation are obsolete by the next. He went on to add, "But, like I said, the end of this system of things is at most 88 years for you personally. Barring any accidents or disease or whatever. So that's how long you have to please God at most. [laughs] You're close; [Shem]'s way closer." (When Uriah tried to assert that he's 28 years old, in the manner of many older folks playfully reasserting their youth, I fired back that he's been 28 years old since the American Revolution.) Another member of my household chimed in eventually to correct Uriah's math, since 100 - 22 = 78, not 88. When it came time for the second half of the question:

Uriah: Okay, "What will 'the end' mean for those who oppose Jehovah and for those who submit to the rulership of God's Kingdom?"

JB: For those who oppose Jehovah, 'the end' will not mean anything good. It will mean their destruction, because they've been holding out against a loving Ruler who has been urging them to lay down their arms of rebellion and come back in. And they've steadfastly refused and refused and refused, and that can't keep going on forever. There has to be a deadline. When that deadline is finally reached, it's time for justice and they'll be destroyed.

Uriah: Okay.

JB: But for those who do submit to his rulership, it will be the beginning of every conceivable blessing and many that we can't conceive of, because the King we serve will finally be acknowledged as ruler of all, and reality will reflect that.

Uriah: Excellent. Good.

I was then called upon to read paragraph 16, which urges the reader to become involved in studying the Bible and getting to know God better and making it one's "habit to associate regularly with others who seek to do Jehovah's will". Nothing really controversial there, and I answered accordingly. The last two paragraphs were similarly inoffensive. Paragraph 17 dealt with how many people would be caught utterly off-guard by God's surprising sudden action. During the discussion on that one, we talked a bit about how even people who attend church and read the Bible can be caught off-guard, because (as I put it) what matters is more than being in a place and having an object; one needs to do with both according to the purpose for which they were given us. Uriah also asked about whether it was enough to also tithe (one common critique JWs have for 'Christendom' is that tithing seems to them to be what some other 'Christians' hold as our sole responsibility to God); I referred to this mentality as "paying God off" and a "cosmic bribe". We also discussed how many people, when confronted by Jehovah's Witnesses, will say something along the lines of, "I already have a church." (The JW book Reasoning from the Scriptures, of course, has several polite replies to this. I, however, offered up the simpler answer I would say if I were a Jehovah's Witness hearing that while going door-to-door: "So?") Uriah also created a hypothetical scenario in which some friends of mine mock my faith and urge me to do something ungodly with them, and I answered that I'd refuse and explain to them "the reasons why I'm not willing to, I don't know, go on some crazy escapade to Iceland to retrieve the head of the prime minister". Uriah's response? "Yeah, yeah, right." Shem's, on the other hand, was just, "...Wow..." (Uriah isn't the only one with a somewhat twisted imagination, heh.)

Paragraph 18 then dealt with Jesus' warnings not to be caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle that pays no attention to the things of God. I answered the relevant question ("What warning by Jesus should we take to heart?") quite satisfactorily, of course, since it was about as easy as it can get. So Uriah tossed me another hypothetical scenario in which I'm a minister counseling a man who works in, e.g., a hula-hoop factory every weekday, watches some sports to unwind on Saturday, goes to church for a bit on Sunday and sleeps through some of the message because he's so exhausted, and then just repeats it all the next week. First he asked how "Jesus' warning would fit into that schedule", and I said:
There's no ultimate purpose, there's no-- it's way too cyclical, it just views the same thing repeating over and over again as if that's the pattern that the entire universe always has and always will use. Jesus is talking about something linear, something where there are big things, God-things, that break into our lives and dramatically disrupt our little routines. That sort of cycle of a week you just described gives no attention to anything beyond itself. There's no-- These rituals here, these rituals here, all the little routines that never go beyond themselves. So that's what he was warning us against: getting so caught up in these little mundane things that we miss out on the overall trajectory of the reality in which we live.
Then he asked what advice I'd give to the man if he objected that the Bible commands him to support his family and so he can't find time or energy for spirituality, and I said:
Well, the first thing I'd do is take him to some words of Paul that talk about whether we live, we live to God, whether we die, we die to Christ, you know, whatever we do, it's for him. So the first thing I would do is ask him, probe around a little bit, if these-- you know, his job at the hula-hoop factory or whatever - if he's really doing every task to God, to Christ. And from the description, it sounds like he isn't, so the first thing that he can do is learn to take his little day-to-day things that he knows he has to do, and reorient their purpose, make sure that even in the little routines he's doing, he's got this big picture encapsulated within all that that fits into a larger pattern, a pattern with an order. The next thing I'd say is that if he knows he's got a limited amount of energy, make sure that God comes first, because he's rendering to Caesar the things that are God's at that moment. What he needs to do is make sure that God gets our firstfruits, not the little, you know, whatever we have in the back storage shed. And he's got to make sure that he follows through on that, you know, not making the error of Ananias and Sapphira and holding something back. He's got to really give it all over. So those are two of the first things I'd say, make sure you're putting God first in allocating your limited resources, as it were, and making sure that everything else is transformed by that transcendental focus, and three, learn how to reorganize your schedule a little bit here and there to make sure you do have time and energy for the things that matter. You know, maybe go to bed a bit earlier on Saturday night, not spend so much time, you know, on sports and whatever, so that you can pay more attention on Sunday, you're not just sleeping through it. And make sure that you have enough energy to focus on what's being said, really think about it, and then see how you can apply that throughout the cycles as the week goes on, and always be focused on where it's all headed.
After Uriah approved my answer, he asked me what advice I'd give the man about prayer, and I said that I'd tell him to integrate it into every facet of his life. Uriah, Shem, and I then turned to the customary end-of-chapter box located at the bottom of page 95. We read the three fairly uncontroversial statements summarizing the chapter's least controversial points. To discuss one of them, we turned to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 again, and Uriah asked me if the "critical times hard to deal with" would be for everybody but Christians. I denied that we'd get any sort of exception from trials and tribulations, and said on the contrary that we'd get our lion's share. Uriah was delighted with the answer, and after we noted that Satan wouldn't need to waste much time tempting wayward folks off the path, I gave as an analogy a quarterback running toward the wrong goal without the ball, and how the opposing team will instead be tackling the player who's posing a threat by running the right way with the ball. It was, as I noted thereafter, probably the first adequate sports analogy I've ever used. I think we were all a bit surprised. When discussing verse 5 ("having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power"), Uriah asked me if I'd heard what Pat Robertson recently said about Haiti, which gave me an occasion to promptly refer to Robertson as "an idiot" and catalogue a few of his other idiotic public statements. I also told Uriah my friend Daniel's favorite disclaimer story about The 700 Club; rather than saying that the show does not necessarily reflect the network's views, they found it more accurate to bluntly state that the show does not reflect the network's views.

(There was also a brief retelling of a story from a Bethelite speaker whose brother had no interest in Jehovah's Witnesses. The guy was given an issue of The Watchtower but, not intending to read it, threw it in the bathroom trash. Shortly thereafter, he caught some sort of bug and ended up with pretty bad diarrhea, which put him in the bathroom for several hours. Needing something to read, he fished The Watchtower from the trash, read it all the way through, and decided he'd like a JW Bible study after all. Now, I've heard some interesting stories alleging God's special intervention in a person's life to guide them along, but I haven't heard too many that involved diarrhea!)

Uriah also noticed that in the stack of books behind me - needless to say, my house contains many stacks of books, a title that caught his eye: Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. It was beneath my copy of L. Ron Hubbard's laughable Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. I explained briefly that William Webb's Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis was about Webb's detailed system of determining how to properly get from what the Bible says about something to how we should behave today. He tested his technique on three of the most controversial issues he could find in that regard: slavery, women, and homosexuality--hence the title.

Anyway, we finished up Chapter 9 ("Are We Living in 'the Last Days'?"), and the next study meeting will begin Chapter 10 ("Spirit Creatures--How They Affect Us"). However, the next time I'll see Uriah and Shem will be at the circuit assembly at the end of the month.


  1. Hey JB, do you know how I can find out where and when to attend a Jehovah's Witness meeting? (Is that what their church services are called?) I've been to the Watchtower website, but they didn't have any links on there to local does this work with Jehovah's Witnesses?

  2. Hi Sarah! Good to hear from you.

    That's actually a really good question. Jehovah's Witnesses don't have nearly the same kind of efficient system as, e.g., Latter-day Saints do. I know that when I was in Athens, I simply could not locate a single Kingdom Hall (which for some reason they're especially averse to calling a "church"). Probably the only thing I can suggest is using a program like Google Earth, zooming in on the area in which you're interested, and searching for something like "Jehovah's Witness". For example, assuming that you might be in the Provo area since, if I recall correctly, you're a BYU student, there should be a Kingdom Hall located at 491 North 1280 West (it appears to be at the intersections of N 1280 W and W 500 N), which appears to be well within three miles of the BYU campus.

    Finding the meeting time is a bit trickier, since they don't typically post that, but Google Earth has the phone number for the Kingdom Hall, so if one were to call that, one could probably get the meeting time without much trouble. And, if that doesn't work, their meetings on Sunday are long enough that if one were to show up at just about any time, they'd probably be there, and it wouldn't trouble them much to ask when the meetings would begin for, say, the next Sunday.

    I hope this helps!