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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Truth in a Digital Age

Discovery the old way: books
I have not made many bad book purchases in my life, but Encyclopedia Britannica for Children was a bad choice. It wasn't the books but the timing we messed up. We bought the series for our children at the dawn of the digital revolution. Perhaps that's why the deal was so good!

This wonderful set has rarely been used by our kids (and should we want to sell it would fetch very little today - I found a set on eBay for £30 - including free P&P - which means the seller was in effect giving the set away to a good home).

Encyclopedia Britannica, whether the children or adult version, was the old way of finding out facts authoritatively. Each article was written by an expert in the field. You could trust what you read. Schools were happy for you to quote it.

Books, that's where knowledge was stored. And since a publisher had his name to protect, the facts were checked and double checked.

Discovery the new way: Google and Wikipedia
But that is not how we do discovery today.  Today's generation go immediately to a search engine, most likely to Google, and type in their question, perhaps in a variety of ways, to narrow in on the desired answered. Often Wikipedia will figure on page 1, though not always.

Google answers about 1 billion of these questions every day. 

I wanted to know more about the knowledge gateway Google and the website it often ranks high, Wikipedia, so I read Tim Challies' book, "The Next Story", Life and faith after the digital explosion.

What I found has disturbed me....

Google is driven by a complicated mathematical formula. When you put in your string of words, it runs the string through this formula to determine the most relevant websites.

Money first
First of all, since Google is a business, if it can, it will make money out of your request and lead you to a website which will pay Google for being ranked high.

Popularity second
Second, and since many of the questions we ask do not have a financial connection, Google does a PageRank to determine how trustworthy the website is. A web site will be ranked, to put it simply, by how many other websites refer to it. The logic is that the more websites around the world that refer to this website the more reliable it must be.

This is where the first real concern about truth must lie. Popularity is no indication of truth - though of course, Google has no other way of determining truth.

Everywhere in Scripture, when it comes to spiritual truth, we are given numerous examples of the minority being in the truth, and the majority in error. Ten spies say the land cannot be conquered, two say it can. The two are in the right. Eight hundred and fifty prophets say that Baal is the true 'god', one man says that the God in heaven is the true God. The one man is right. The majority of Israel wander off into idolatry, the small remnant remain faithful. Most people wander down the wide road that leads to destruction, few find the road to life.

So if you have a question you will be led to websites on the first page that themselves have been pointed to by the largest number of other websites.

But you have no idea whether or not that website will give you reliable information, and you are relying on the popularity of the site to give you the answer. In life are the most popular people right? Are the most popular websites right?

Wikipedia third
Very often Wikipedia turns up on page one. For example, I just Googled "Does God exist". The fourth entry is Wikipedia's article. Google rank Wikipedia highly.

The Problem with Wikipedia
While Wikipedia provides many of us with immediate answers to a whole range of day to day practical questions, truth by Wikipedia is beset by one major problem: anyone can edit Wikipedia. On the one hand ordinary people can possess great knowledge, on the other hand, the reliability of that knowledge can be uneven.

Conclusions
From this simple survey, I came to three conclusions:

(1)  If we are looking for answers to factual questions, Google and Wikipedia will most probably lead us towards the right direction.

(2) If it is a moral or a spiritual question Google and Wikipedia are unreliable guides, because their answeres are shaped by popular consensus rather than truth.

(3) Teach your kids about their new 'parents'. It is amazing how ignorant this present parenting generation can be about the primary influences of many kids upon their lives. Today if a child has a personal problem they are not likely to ask mother or father but Google. Parents must not only teach their children how to use Google, but they must also make sure they do not delegate the task of parenting to Grandad Google.

Tim Challies' book is well worth reading, and unfolds many other challenges we are faced with in a digital age.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Google and Truth

A lesson about Google learnt from misfuelling...

Diesel
For the first (and last, I hope) time in my life, I put the wrong fuel in my car. Fortunately it was diesel in a petrol car, not petrol in a diesel car (which is double bad news, here's why for the mechanically minded: (i) petrol is a poor lubricant, but diesel engines use the fuel to lubricate parts; and (ii) petrol is a good solvent - therefore it dissolves the diesel which prevents it from lubricating the engine. Ouch!, or should that be crunch?).

By the time I realised the error my tank was filled with about 70% petrol and 30% diesel.

From this simple mistake I have learnt a lesson or two about where to find truth.....

Put in the same predicament, what would you do? Many if not most of us today, all too instinctively, reach for Google......

Google
...so into the search bar went a variety of word strings, "Put diesel in petrol car", "70% petrol, 30% diesel", "Effect of diesel in petrol car" and so on. I wanted to know whether the car was drivable, what the effects of the diesel would be and so on.

All the websites on page one were companies wanting you to part with around £200, whether "Fuel-fix", "Wrong-fuel" or "Fuel-doctor". No answers here. Well of course Google is powered by money, not truth, so I should have expected this.

Next on the list were a series of public forums where Joe Blogs can give his two-penny worth of advice. Not very good advice, I am afraid, conflicting, confusing and misleading. No answers here. I guess Google is next powered by public consensus.

Truth
What I was looking for - an expert opinion on the effects of diesel in a petrol car at varying ratios was nowhere to be found - at least not on the first few pages. The best I got was an AA comment that if it was 10% or less diesel you could get away with it. But did this mean 20% since everyone covers themselves, did it mean 40% in older cars which are less sensitive, and so on. None of this was available on Google. Why not?

Google is powered by sophisticated mathematical algorithim (equation) which works out, not truth, but relevancy. Anyone who has done maths will know that all sorts of coefficients and terms can be included and adjusted, each one of them will give a different weighting to the final results. Google works out which websites are likely to give you the 'best answer' according to its criteria.....

...there's the rub.

Since Google needs to make money, companies that want your money come top of the list; though to be fair, most people having made this mistake, will want to know who can fix it for them. But the second raft of answers, the public forums are driven by the contemporary democratization of truth. Truth is not to be found with the experts, but with Joe Public.

This is how Wikipedia works, contra Encyclopedia Britannica. The latter asks 60,000 experts to write expert researched articles. Wikipedia, asks any of the world's 7 billion ordinary people to write their articles. According to them, "the Wikipedia model allows anyone to edit." In fact you can do so completely anonymously, if you wish: an unknown shepherd in outer Mongolia can write an article on the Higgs Boson.

I don't perosnally think the battle lines here are as simple as some make out: I don't believe shepherds are stupid. There is a real danger of entrusting truth to an elite group of people, just as there is in trusting truth to everyone. The "experts" may be filled with all the bias's of their age which may be great hindrances to truth. A shepherd might point out an obvious error a scientist is making (which he cannot see, having grown up immersed in a sea of prejudices and paradigms). The public on the other hand may too easily be swayed by the latest viral epinion. I think I prefer Encyclopedia Britannica, but I don't despise Joe Public.

What I never got to (at least on the pages I viewed) was an article written by someone who really knew what they were on about, telling me the facts and the pros and cons and allowing me to make an informed decision as to what to do next.

A more careful approach to truth
In the day of Google and Wikipedia, we need to sound a cautionary note on sources of truth. We cannot rely on either of these sources, which are driven by money (in the case of Google) and consensus (in the case of Wikipedia). Neither money nor popularity are adequate foundations for truth.

We need a healthy skepticism towards everything we read on the web and we need to stop being quite so  lazy in our search for truth. A visit to the library is still a better route towards truth.

Ultimate Truth
When it is spiritual truth we are searching for, ultimate answers about life death, God and meaning,  Google and Wikipedia are of very little help. Instead we must find our way to the one who called himself  "The Way, the Truth and the Life" and whose disciple Peter said "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Jesus and Gays

The new age of Heterophobia
The vicar on Radio Four suggested that anyone who held the view that homosexual behaviour was wrong was most probably homophobic - they probably hated gays.

(No, you read right, "The vicar on Radio Four..").

In other words there are now only two kinds of people in the world. Those who agree with homosexual behaviour, the good guys, and those who don't: the bad guys who hate gays.

There is no longer a place in that vicar's world for people who believe, in good conscience and on solid grounds, that heterosexual behaviour between one man and one woman in marriage is the only right sexual behaviour.

In other words, we have entered the new world of, let's call it heterophobia, where we who only agree with heterosexual behaviour are the new hated enemy.

My own guess is that persecution of Christians in the West will soon arise from this quarter; that we will be persecuted, prohibited, fined or/and imprisoned one day for holding the sincere view that homosexual behaviour is sinful and wrong.

The vast difference between homophobia and a Christian attitude to homosexuality
It was convenient - but completely wrong - for the gay vicar to suggest that if you are against homosexual behaviour you hate gays. My guess is that he knew full well what he was doing and that it was a manipulative attempt to lump everyone who disagrees with him into a hate bracket, where they become an easier target for the different but more obvious sin of hatred. Tar those who disagree with homosexuality with a "hate" brush and you have produced an easier (not to mention nastier) target for elimination.

Tragically in the US there are some isolated groups that call themselves "Christian" who wear the hate badge proudly, but they do not represent the Jesus of Nazareth, portrayed in the Scriptures.

The Jesus of the Bible is just the opposite. When he meets someone whom he believes to be in the wrong, his heart is filled with love, not hate. In fact, he got himself in trouble for hanging out with the "bad guys" and had to defend his reputation by telling everyone that he came to "seek and to save the lost".

On one occasion when religious zealots brought before him a woman accused of adultery expecting him to damn her, he forgave her (but told her to go away and sin no more). Exactly the same attitude was to be found in his followers who had compassion on those they viewed as in error.

A Christian holds in her or his heart no hatred whatsoever towards those who practise homosexuality; exactly and precisely the opposite, they love gays. But they do believe that homosexual behaviour is sinful.

Why homosexual behaviour is wrong
Why?  Why do Christians believe homosexual behaviour is wrong? Because it is the clear witness of Scripture, not to mention the witness of nature.

(1) God created men and women heterosexually
In the beginning God created a man and a woman (Genesis chapters 1-3) and throughout the Bible this is viewed as God's way of people living together in intimacy. Jesus pointed back to this as God's plan and ideal (Matthew 19:5-8). There are plenty of examples of men (for example marrying more than one wife) and some of women (for example prostituting themselves) moving outside of these boundaries in thought or deed (and who reading this blog hasn't been tempted to go outside God's boundaries in thought, at least?) but God's ideal and God's way from the beginning was always one man and one woman for life. And when you look at the history of the world, this pattern is borne out as the norm: nature teaches the same as Scripture.

(2) The fall of mankind  has messed all of us up sexually
Once the fall of mankind (Genesis 3) took place, though, sex - like everything else - became distorted. In some cases the servant becomes a master, enslaving people. In others cases sex itself becomes twisted, and as Paul puts it, men become captive to "shameful lusts" (Romans 1:26) and "abandon natural relations with women." Relations between men and women are natural, and relations between men and men are unnatural. The same is said for women who "exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones".

We are all messed up sexually. For heterosexuals this twistedness will show itself up in unwanted temptations of lust and desire. For others, they may discover an attraction to their own sex, either 'from birth' or perhaps through the corrupting influence of someone else. Both kinds, all kinds, of sexual messed-upness are wrong.

In a sex-mad world, we must all watch out for sexual temptation. Perhaps that is one of the misleading imbalances of the debate today. We must not as churches focus on one kind of sexual sin - perhaps giving the misleading impression that we are targeting homosexuality. Instead we must speak against every form of sexual twistedness, whether hetero or homo, and pray for repentance across the board.

Not surprisingly, since homosexuality is wrong, it involves significant health risks. In a report by Dr J R Diggs, he says that "sexual relationships between members of the same sex expose gays, lesbians and bisexuals to extreme risks of sexually transmitted diseases, physical injuries, mental disorders and even a shortened life span." See the whole article here:  The Health Risks of Gay Sex by Dr J R Diggs. If we love people, we must tell them the truth (but the truth in this article is not pleasant reading: you have been warned).

(3) The Scriptures make it clear that homosexual behaviour is as wrong as heterosexual sin.
Adultery is wrong (Exodus  20:14) and so is homosexual behaviour (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13). God judged Sodom and Gomorrah for this sin (Genesis 19). Men who practise homosexual behaviour have become "inflamed with lust for one another" and are committing "indecent acts with other men." (Romans 1). No-one who practises this kind of behaviour will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The Scriptures Jesus commended (the Old Testament) and the Scriptures his apostles would write in his name (the New Testament) all point in the same direction: all sexual behaviour outside of one-man-one-woman marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is wrong and sinful.

So how should we respond in life?

(1) Let's not isolate one kind of wrong behaviour. Let us speak out against all sexual twistedness and   speak out against all deviations from God's norm.

(2) Let's understand why there is so great a concern, though, about this sin. There is a reason why Christians speak with heightened voice and deeper sadness about homosexual sin: the apostle Paul teaches that it as an indication of a culture moving even further from God and standing under the judgement of God: if heterosexual sin is step 1 away from God (Romans 1:24), homosexual sin is step 2 (Romans 2:26-27). The indecent acts men commit in homosexual behaviour, explain why Paul calls it 'unnatural' and why even natural unaided reason speaks against it.

(3) Let us love the Christian struggling with gay tendencies. Because we are all twisted sexually, some will find they are naturally drawn to their own sex. Although many of us may find that kind of attraction  strange, it does happen. (A man with the gift of singleness once told me he found relationships with a woman strange!)  Let us treat such fellow Christians with great kindness. In our love for them, we must  insist that practicing homosexual behavior is always wrong and the struggle they face may be THE STRUGGLE of their whole lives. But God will come to their aid, as he does for all who struggle. To those who were sinners of all kinds - including practising homosexuals - but who were then converted, Paul writes:

"that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11)

(4) Let us not magnify this issue out of proportion. I have written over a hundred blogs. One on this issue is probably enough.

(5) Let us love the gay community. There is no place whatsoever, in Christian thinking, for rejecting gay people. Like all of us, they need the Good News of Jesus Christ too. 

Answering some common objections
How do we answer common objections to the Scripture's stance?

(1) "But most people in our country now think it's OK." The media, who are populated by a greater proportion of people who hold this view, have done a thorough job of popularising gay relationships and making them look 'natural'. Gay relationships appear on the soaps, on game shows, and so on. At this year's BAFTA awards (2013), Stephen Fry made it clear he likes men. Prime Ministers and Presidents have joined the cue to approve of this sin. But a sin's acceptability or popularity does not make it right. In fact the rapid reversal of popular opinion on this matter in our country is the result of a tragic ignorance of God's Word and a sign of God's judgement upon us.

(2) "But don't gay people love each other?" By portraying gay couples kissing one another and having "weddings", gay relationships have hijacked the norm previously rightly reserved for heterosexual relationships. But, again, it is possible for a human being to love what is unnatural and wrong. The world is filled with examples of human beings sincerely loving what is wrong. Any one of us can love what is wrong. The fact that we love something is not an argument for its rightness. Drug addicts love drugs, alcoholics love alcohol. The love of a thing is not an indication of its propriety. In a twisted world we will discover many wrong loves. 

(3) "But aren't we are being anti-equality denying marriage to gays?" This is perhaps the most subtle argument of all, because it appeals to our sense of justice. And the gay lobby have successfully used this argument to place the gay marriage issue in the same category as that of the slave trade and equality between the sexes in the work place. 

But it is a confusion (a clever confusion, no doubt) to place these issues in the same category  for the following reason. Men and women of all colours and races, are made equal in the sight of God, and deserve equal treatment. Equality in this case is right and proper, it is equality among equals. But it is a confusion to equate equality between people to equality between relationships. Not all relationships are in point of fact equal. Some relationships are right (heterosexual marriage) and some relationships are wrong (gay 'marriage'). Some relationships can produce children, some cannot. Homosexual and heterosexual relationships are not, in point of fact, equal, so it is a simple category mistake to lump the gay 'marriage' issue with the slavery issue. The reason for this identity is simple politics: it cloaks the gay issue with words such as "justice" equality" etc., which all people believe in, and therefore draws in the unwary and unthinking.

Homosexual people are equal to heterosexual people - we are all sinners in God's holy sight. But homosexual relationships are not equal to heterosexual relationships. 

A word to the church
We who love the Lord Jesus Christ and love the lost world he loved, must now brace ourselves for opposition - and for deliberate and sustained misunderstanding. In particular, we will be accused of two crimes: (a) hating gays, which we do the opposite of,  and (b) treating them unequally, which again is false: we treat the people the same, but don't regard all relationships as equal.  But this is not at all surprising or new. In the first few centuries of the church rumours of all kinds about Christians went around unchecked. Some said that Christians ate babies at their initiation ceremonies. Others said that Christians worshipped the head of a donkey. Still others that they partook of orgies at their love feasts. None of these were true, of course.

In spite of the persecution (because of the persecution?), the church grew dramatically. Tertullian, the African Christian leader put the growth like this:

“We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you – cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum – we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.”

Perhaps through the persecution that surely looms ahead of faithful Christians, we too will see the church of Jesus Christ grow, flourish and deepen. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

"I Can't Believe Because (1)" - God allowed 42 boys to be mauled by bears

"I can't believe because of the harsh stories in the Old Testament"
No doubt there are some difficult stories in the Bible, and this one, in 2 Kings 2, is often held up as one of the toughest. Here it is in the NIV translation:

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria."

On the surface of things there are three big problems with this story:
  1. The offence seems so small - boys mocking a man
  2. The judgement seems so disproportionate - a mauling for a mockery
  3. God therefore seems harsh, since the judgement came from him, called down by Elisha (who also appears harsh)
How do we explain such a story? 

Attitude to the text
First, a thing or two about attitude to text.

(1) Friend or foe?
I remember reading Lance Armstrong's biography long before he 'fessed up. His arrogance (an opinon recently justified)  quickly put me off and from that point onwards I was not friendly - or neutral - towards the book. How you read this story will depend in part whether you are hostile to the text (the Bible) before you begin. If you are hostile, you'll not make any real efforts to understand. 

(2) Whose standard?
A second factor which will shape our attitude to the text: do we think the standards of our day are the right ones? If we assume that our attitudes and mores are right, then we will judge the text from our standpoint. What if our attitudes are actually wrong? What if we allow the text to judge us and our mores? What if, in fact, that is exactly what we are meant to do: stand corrected?

(3) Are we judging from a safe (and rare) historical bubble?
It is extremely easy to judge other nations from the comfort of a country in which there are policemen, wealth, health and justice. We look at the unfolding violence of the 'Arab Spring' and think that put in the same situation we wouldn't do the same sorts of things. But that is to forget the safe bubble we enjoy in the West and from which we observe the world. Most of the world, for most of history (both past and I would predict future) has experienced violence and brutality, without 'police' or 'justice' as the norm. From such a standpoint, violence is the norm. This does not justify violence, but it does help us to see how easily we tend to judge any form of physical violence or punishment harshly.

Observations that put the story in context
Let us assume we want to understand the story with no axe to grind. Here are some observations that will help us:

(1) Elisha lived in a unique 'theocracy' - we don't. Elisha lived in a unique time and situation. He lived in a theocracy, in which God and state were intimately entwined. This temporary situation, which resulted in a prophet calling down judgement on idolatrous fellow citizens was temporary, and since Christ has come this era is gone. (Indeed it was limited even in the Old Testament: as often as not, God used peoples and nations outside of Israel to punish Israel, rather than the other way round - for example, the exile(s)). 

(2) The Bible's revelation of God is progressive. We are not to read off this event everything about the character of God. Some aspects, such as his justice are taught (see later). But not until the birth and life of Jesus Christ do we see what God is really like, in all his glorious fullness. So an event like this can never be set in isolation.....

(3)...most of Elisha's miracles are doing good for the poorest of his world. The character of God is revealed, if you like, by summing up all of the miracles God did through Elisha. You soon realise that God is overwhelmingly good - and especially to the weakest and poorest in his world.

(4) Elisha's age respected adults. There was a specific command to respect older people: ‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord" says Leviticus 19:32, for example. These lads were out of order in their own culture. What they did may seem nothing to us but it was regarded as outrageous in that culture (as indeed it would still be in many Eastern cultures: it's only in the West we have come to accept disrespect of the young towards the old).

(5) Elisha was God's mouthpiece. A prophet was a mouthpiece of God and to show him dishonour was to dishonour the one who sent him. These lads were disrespecting the God of Elisha....

(6)..... Elisha was in the centre of a religious culture that had rejected God. Bethel was at the centre of a rebellious pagan Jewish culture which had deliberately turned its back on God. Many years previously the north (called Israel) had broken away from the south (called Judah) and established its own false worship, centring at Bethel. When we understand this, we see why these lads mocked Elisha in the first place: probably because they heard such mocking in their own homes: most probably their families hated the God of Elisha. When I was in Kenya recently, we stopped beside a road, and a "mad woman" came to the car to beg. Little boys without any provocation spat on her. Why? Because, no doubt in their homes, she had been spoken evil of. These boys were reflecting their town's attitude to God and his spokesman.

Observations on the story itself
Let's look at the story again.

"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria."

Note the following:

(1) The boys are not little kids. The word used refers to people between 12 and 30 able to discern right and wrong, and considered mature.  

(2) There are a whole lot of them. Can you imagine a gang of at least 42 lads setting on one older man? This is a big marauding gang of taunters. Who knows where the jeers would have led? Elisha's murder?

(3) There is no indication that the lads were killed, only mauled. There are words for kill in Hebrew, but this is not one of them. No doubt these lads were badly hurt by the she bears, but there is no reason to believe that they were killed. 

(4) The boys were insulting Elisha and God. Elijah (Elisha's predecessor) had just gone up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and the lads knowing this, seem to have taunting him in two ways. (i) "you too go back to heaven and get out of here" (ii) "you're a baldy." They were dishonouring Elisha personally and dishonouring God by telling God's prophet to go back to God.

(5) Elisha leaves the judgement to God. Elisha calls down a curse, but leaves the working out of that curse to providence. Who is to say that these boys in their focused taunts towards Elisha failed  to notice the presence of some (mother?) bears (with young?) and put themselves in this dangerous position by their neglect.  

(6) God is righteous. What if the God in heaven is a just God - as well as gracious and merciful? What if these lads deserved punishment for their outrageous behaviour? What if they had insulted their local prince: now scale that up to the Creator of the Universe. These were not children who were ignorant of God, they knew full well that there was a God in heaven and who Elisha was. 

Observations that critique our culture
What if this text works the other way round, and is designed to critique our own Western comfortable culture, like this:

(1) This text questions our obsession with physical well-being. Why can't we handle any kinds of physical punishments? Because we live in such soft physical conditions, where every material bodily comfort is ours for the asking or buying, we struggle with any punishment that involves the body. But perhaps, as Nature (creation) warns us against fire, heights and sharp items with immediate physical pain, we need to revisit the value of physical pain as punishment. For sure, a smack is often the quickest way to teach a child.  One day, when poverty and disease has removed the thin veneer of Western civilization and we experience revolution, war and bloodshed on our streets, as most people in most of the history of the world experience, and there is not enough room in our prisons, or enough money to build more of them, perhaps then we shall see that sometimes in history nothing but physical punishment can restrain wicked behaviour. Perhaps then we will be glad for policemen who carry big sticks and use them effectively to quash gangs that unchecked would raid our homes that night. Who is to say what this mob of boys would have done to their next victim had they not been stopped here?

(2) This text challenges lost inter-generational respect - and every other kind of respect with it.  We are surprised that lads insulting a man is regarded as so wrong. But perhaps respect for those older than us is a good element of human manners and behaviour. For one practical thing, it protects the physically weak older person. In a democratic culture where everyone is on the same level, we have lost the respect that universally had been paid to the elderly, and to those in authority (whether we agree with them or not). But perhaps it is we, not them who are in error. 

(3) This text challenges our lost fear of God: we no longer believe in the Majesty, Holiness and Righteousness of God. That's the big issue in this story. If we believed in the righteousness and majesty of God, we would be cut to the quick about any insult to him or his spokesman, great or small, and we should probably be wondering why God did not send upon them (and their parents) fire and brimstone, not some incy wincy  bears......   

... in which case we might be saying that this story is not one of harsh brutality, but of the kind mercy of God to a city who were here given warning which might have prevented them from greater judgement to come (if only they had listened, they may have avoided the Exile), and were spared greater judgement had they killed God's spokesperson.