Sunday, August 30, 2015

Compassion As an Anecdote?

The man who gave the sermon this morning was talking about Mark 7:1-15.  In that passage, Jesus was saying that “the things that come out are what defile” (NRSV).  The preacher was interpreting this to mean that, when we act on the corrupt and selfish things that are inside of us (making them “things that come out”), we become separated from God (defilement), presumably until we repent and receive forgiveness.  The preacher seemed to be presenting compassion as an anecdote to our struggle with vice.  The preacher noted that Jesus in the passage was compassionate towards the dishonored and deprived parents of some of the Pharisees, and he also referred to other passages in which Jesus feels and acts on compassion.  The preacher said that, unlike us, Jesus was not proud as a result of his compassion, and that we should not be proud either because compassion is something that God has placed inside of us.

What the preacher said reminded me of Galatians 5:16.  In the KJV, it reads, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”  Over a decade ago, another preacher told me after citing this passage, “You can’t do both.”  His point was that, by walking according to the Spirit and its fruit (i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.), we are going in the opposite direction of the works of the flesh (i.e., hatred, sexual immorality, etc.).  It’s like cultivating and walking in what is good is an anecdote to being bad, for both are oriented in opposite directions.

As I look at the NRSV and the Greek of Galatians 5:16, I am a bit skeptical that this is what the passage is saying.  The NRSV has, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  This seems to treat Galatians 5:16 as a two-fold command rather than viewing walking in the Spirit as an anecdote to walking in the flesh: walk in the Spirit, and don’t gratify the flesh.  Obey both commands.  In the Greek, the part about not walking in the flesh is in the subjunctive: “may you not fulfill desire of flesh.”  To me, that seems to coincide more with what the NRSV has.  I may be forgetting some Greek rule, though, so I am open to correction.

Do I believe that cultivating compassion can serve as an anecdote to acting on the flesh?  On some level, I do.  Compassion humanizes people and seeks to identify with them.  If I am compassionate towards someone I hate, that lessens my hatred.  If I humanize a woman after whom I lust, that tempers, or at least counter-balances, my lust.  I still have questions, though.  For example, is sexually desiring a woman, or even engaging in pre-marital sex, necessarily the opposite of love?  It can be, but is it in every case?  Both Jesus in Mark 7 and Paul in Galatians 5 list sexual immorality among the vices, however.

I liked what the preacher said about compassion being the voice of God within us.  I am one who wants to hear from God.  Well, maybe God is speaking to me when I feel an urge to be compassionate.  I was thinking of a colleague whom I cannot stand, and, to my surprise, I was actually happy that he had a job, for I remembered listening to him stress out about employment prospects.  Whenever I feel this way, I ask myself, “Is that compassion genuine?  Am I really happy for this ass?”  I then think, “Why stress out over that question?  Just cultivate compassion!  Any ounce of compassion that is within me is worth cultivating.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

Steve Hays Contra Hector Avalos: Were the Disciples Deadbeat Dads?

Leaning Towards Darth Hillary?

I haven’t written a whole lot about the 2016 Presidential election.  This is unlike me, since I wrote a lot about the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections when they were going on.

In this post, I would like to talk about Hillary.  Here are some thoughts.
  1.  I was leaning towards voting for Bernie Sanders, and that may be what I end up doing.  I do think it’s cool that he’s drawing huge crowds and, at the moment at least, is posing a significant challenge to Hillary.  That makes the election interesting.  But, one night, I was flipping through channels.  I came to C-Span, and it was showing a town hall meeting in which Hillary was answering questions from the audience.  Hillary really impressed me.  Someone asked her about Medicare and what its policy should be towards people who take care of their elderly parents at home, and Hillary addressed that question intelligently, with bullet points, showing that she had thought about the issue.  A couple of leftist young people were trying to disrupt the town hall because they thought that Hillary did not go far enough on climate change, and Hillary took control of the meeting, expressed understanding towards their position, and said, logically, that we cannot simply stop using carbon-based fuels cold turkey, for so much of the economy depends on them.  She is still for addressing the problem of climate change, however.
  2. Contrast how Hillary handled that Townhall with how Bernie Sanders handled the disruption at his event.  Bernie just let those Black Lives Matters activists take over his rally!  He just stood there!  At least that’s my understanding of what happened.  Sure, he should have let them have their say, but he also should have been present, somehow.  He should have gone to the microphone and said something, either responding to what they said, or entering into a dialogue with them, or expressing sympathy for their concerns.  Hillary, on the other hand, had a dialogue with Black Lives Matters activists.
  3. In recent polls, Hillary does not get high marks for trustworthiness.  Do I trust Hillary?  Well, it depends on what I’m trusting her for.  Do I see her as thoroughly honest, ethical, transparent, and lovable?  No.  She is shady.  She stretches the truth.  I have heard that she can be mean.  I have called her “Darth Hillary.”  And, while she is an intelligent, sophisticated woman, that time when she left the White House with White House silverware seemed a bit white-trashy to me.  But I also believe that she has a social conscience and has manifested that during her years as a lawyer, as First Lady, and in public service.  I think that there is a part of her that cares for the vulnerable.  Some of that may be for show, but some of it, I suspect, is real.
  4. One concern that I have about her being President is that her Administration will probably have scandals, and that will distract her and the government from the business of governing, unless she can find some way to surmount them.  She has a scandal right now.  What makes us think that she won’t as President?
  5. What I like about primaries is that they give me an opportunity to vote for whom I want—-for the candidate who best represents my beliefs, or whom I like the most—-whether that person has a shot in hell or not.  I voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, mainly because I liked how he stood up to Rudy Giuliani and did not back down when Giuliani was getting on his sanctimonious 9/11 high horse.  That said, I am hesitant to vote for Hillary in the primary because I suspect that she will be the Democratic candidate in the general election, and I will probably vote for her then.  (I do not know what role Biden will play in this election.)  Part of me wants to do something different in the primaries.  So I am wondering if I should vote for Bernie Sanders, or one of the Republicans I like, such as John Kasich.  Or maybe I can continue my Paulite tradition and vote for Rand—-I like some of what he says, and some of what he says I find offensive.  The thing is, right now at least, Hillary is the candidate I like the most.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Left Behind (2014); Dear Mr. Watterson

I watched the 2014 Left Behind movie, starring Nicholas Cage.  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  I did not care for the movie.  Now, you may be thinking to yourself that I am the sort of person who would not like the movie—-progressive, an academic wannabe.  But that would be a false conclusion.  I enjoyed the first two Left Behind books.  I loved the audio series.  I liked the second movie produced by Cloud Ten.  I can find myself enjoying Christian apocalyptic thrillers, such as Tribulation.  But I did not care for the 2014 Left Behind movie.
  2. The first thirty minutes were actually pretty good.  Chloe Steele and Buck Williams were expressing their doubts about the existence of God, mostly focusing on the problem of evil.  Rayford Steele was justifying his wife’s religious conversion to his daughter, Chloe, who thought that her mom had gone off the deep end.  There was not much religious or philosophical substance afterwards, though.  There was a lot of focus on landing the plane.  I found that to be boring.
  3.  The actress who played Hattie was nice to look at.
  4. Until they were raptured, there was nothing really that stood out to me about the Christians.  They were not necessarily nicer than the non-believers who got left behind.  They were nice, but even some of the non-believers were good people who tried to help others.  That may be a point that the movie was trying to make: salvation is not about being a good person, but is about receiving God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  Nowadays, though, my theology and religious/spiritual life do interrelate with the question of what type of person I should be; at the same time, I am still a believer in humbly accepting God’s free grace.
  5. One thought that occurred to me as I watched this movie was: “Is this true?”  Of course, that is the question that the makers of the movie want the viewers to ask themselves.   I tried to recall to my mind the arguments for and against Christian apologetics and historical criticism of the Bible, and the arguments for and against the pretribulational rapture.  I recoiled from the thought of returning to fundamentalism, feeling that, with all of my flaws, I am still in a better place now than I was then.  In the end, I recalled a post that I wrote a while back about being ready for the second coming of Christ, and I settled on what I wrote there.  I believe that I have a connection with God, even if I do not dismiss atheist or unorthodox books as from the devil, or try to pressure or manipulate people into accepting evangelical Christianity.
This post was not as long as I expected it to be, so allow me to comment on something else that I watched that night.  It was a documentary about Bill Watterson, the creator of the famous and popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  It was called Dear Mr. Watterson.

  1.  I was never much of a Calvin and Hobbes person.  I read it, but I liked Peanuts and Garfield a lot better.  Still, I was interested in seeing this documentary, for I enjoy comics, and it’s interesting to hear the story of someone who succeeded and made a difference in his profession.
  2. Someone who was interviewed said that he moved to a new neighborhood and did not know anybody, and reading Calvin and Hobbes gave him an anchor during that time.  It was something that he looked forward to and enjoyed.  I could identify with him there because there have been things that have helped me through periods of alienation.
  3. Bill Watterson was said to be reclusive and a bit of a loner.  Someone in the documentary said that, when Watterson could have been out there socializing, he instead stayed home and was perfecting his craft.  I hope that I, as a reclusive person, can succeed in my own way.  I also believe in trying to improve my social skills, but I try not to beat up on myself if I fall short.
  4. Bill Watterson was unusual in the sense that he did not allow Calvin and Hobbes to be licensed.  Other cartoonists did, which is why you see Garfield or Snoopy on lunchboxes, or advertisements, or as dolls.  Watterson, however, believed that this sort of commercialization compromised the craft.  It was interesting to watch Charles Schultz’s wife defending her husband’s decision to license Peanuts—-she said that he saw it as an extension of his art.  The documentary offered pros and cons about this issue.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Write-Up: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

I watched Ridley Scott’s 2014 movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a few nights ago.  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  The movie was controversial among many conservative Christians because it implied that the plagues on Egypt could have been explained naturally, without recourse to the supernatural (see, for example, Al Mohler’s critique here).  Or at least there is ambiguity about whether the God of Israel is the one causing the plagues, or the plagues are just nature taking its course.  The exception to this would be the final plague, the death of the firstborn: I can think of no natural explanation for the Egyptian firstborn dying in a single night, while the Israelite firstborn who had blood on their doors lived.  Overall, though, one could look at the plagues and conclude that they had a natural explanation, as one of the Pharaoh’s advisers did.  For one, as more than one critic has pointed out, we do not know if Moses in the movie was truly interacting with God, or if he was simply hallucinating after being hit in the head.  Second, the plagues start with crocodiles attacking one another, which leads to blood in the Nile, which leads to frogs coming ashore.  The frogs die, and flies come.  Flies spread disease.  Right when Egypt conceivably cannot get any lower, a hailstorm and locusts come.  These are natural events.  Third, the crossing of the Red Sea is not like it is in most Moses movies, with one wall of water on one side, another wall of water on the other side, and a path of dry ground in the middle.  Rather, what happens is that the water gets lower, and that allows the Israelites to cross.
  2. What do I, as a believer in God, think about this?  I like it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I also like Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass, and makes it obvious to arrogant Egypt that the God of Israel is the one kicking Egypt’s ass (I will discuss this further below).  But I personally identified with Ridley Scott’s take on the story: that the God of Israel may be acting, yet there are other ways to explain or interpret what is going on.  That is the situation in which I often find myself: I believe that God is at work in my life, but I can still look at my life and account for events without appealing to God as an explanation.  I still prefer to have faith, though.  I was particularly moved by the scene in which the Israelites were standing on the shores of the Red Sea, wondering what to do next, and Moses was encouraging them to have faith and cross.  What is faith without there being at least some doubt?
  3. There is a question that occurs in my mind, though: Would the Egyptians historically have been open to a naturalistic explanation for the plagues?  Even Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments portrayed Raamses as a bit of a naturalist, at least in one scene: Yul Brynner’s Raamses was saying that the bloody water was caused by clay from the mountains, that Moses and the Egyptian priest fashioned gods to prey on the fears of men, and that the plagues were events that happened of themselves.  Maybe there were occasions when the Egyptians could have had naturalistic thoughts, but they did, overall, have a supernaturalist worldview.  They believed that Egypt had gods, and that even the Pharaoh was a god, or a manifestation of a god.  I can even picture them believing that other people-groups had gods, for nations in the ancient Near East generally did acknowledge the existence of other nations’ gods.  If the Exodus had occurred, how would the Egyptians have accounted for the plagues?  It would be a theological problem for them, I’m sure, for the Pharaoh, a god, was not successfully upholding the natural order and prosperity of his kingdom, and the gods of Egypt were not any help, either.  Maybe the Egyptians could conclude that their gods were mad at them, for some reason—-even though, here, this view could conceivably collapse when all of their attempts to appease their gods were not working.  Or perhaps the Egyptians could have concluded that the god of the Israelites was responsible for the damage—-but the theological problem for the Egyptians here would be that this would arguably make the god of the Israelites more powerful than their own gods.
  4.  A provocative scene is when Moses is talking with God (or God’s messenger), a little boy), and Moses expresses sadness over the plagues, since Moses grew up with the Egyptians.  God asks Moses to consider the Israelites, who were oppressed by the Egyptians for hundreds of years, and God expresses disappointment that Moses does not yet consider the Israelites to be his people.  Moses asks God if the plagues are a matter of revenge, and God responds that the Pharaohs in Egypt think that they are gods, when they are merely flesh and blood.  God wants them to bow down to him in pain, begging for it to stop!  This was the first time that God raised his voice or appeared angry, for, throughout the movie, God was mostly calm and level-headed.
  5. What do I think about that?  The Exodus story gives a lot of people problems.  This is understandable, for innocent Egyptians died as a result of the plagues.  Many non-believers put the Exodus story in the same category as God’s command to slaughter the Canaanite children, thinking that God appears barbaric, bloodthirsty, and unjust.  They may look at my remark above about enjoying Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass and think that I am psychotic.  I can understand their perspective, but allow me to offer a rationale for my own.  Egypt was arrogant.  Its government believed that it had the authority over people’s life and death.  In the movie, the Pharaoh publicly put one Israelite family to death each day until the Israelites turned Moses in, and the Pharaoh later planned to slaughter every Israelite firstborn.  And this Pharaoh had the audacity in the movie to accuse Moses’ God of being cruel and unjust!  I do enjoy seeing the arrogant humbled, the oppressors put in their place, the cruel punished.  What about the innocent Egyptians?  Were there truly innocent Egyptians?  Perhaps even ordinary Egyptians carried with them that attitude of arrogance and contempt for the oppressed.  I know that I have a certain arrogance about being an American, a citizen of the most powerful country on the face of the earth!  I do not like that arrogance, but it is there.  There is more that I can say about this issue: about how private Egyptian citizens may have participated in killing Israelite newborns (Exodus 1:22—-I attribute this observation to Rashi), and how one can even make the case that God loved the Egyptians (see Exodus 9:18-21—-I attribute this observation to Tim Keller; see also this post).
  6. Christian Bale, who played Moses in the movie, reportedly called Moses barbaric.  I admired Moses in Ridley Scott’s movie, though.  Moses as part of the court in Egypt discouraged the Pharaoh from killing Israelites, saying that this would make the Israelites hate the Egyptians and want to rebel against them.  Moses was curious about what the Israelites believed.  Moses was a humble man: when he offered Raamses strategic battle advice and Raamses rebuffed him, Moses respected and deferred to Raamses’ authority.  When Dathan was challenging Moses’ authority at the Red Sea, Moses did not get defensive, but Moses responded humbly and reasonably.  Moses was humble, but humble in a strong sort of way.
  7. During the scene about the final plague, people with Israelite names are dying, even though Moses would later tell Pharaoh that not a single Israelite firstborn died.  How do I know that those people who died had Israelite names?  Because “Yah”—-the name of the God of Israel—-was in those names.  Of course, more than one Moses movie has made this mistake.  The name “Bithia,” the name of Moses’ Egyptian adoptive mother, is Hebrew, for it has “Yah” in it, yet more than one Moses movie depicts the Egyptians calling her “Bithiah” without batting an eye.  This problem should be redressed in future Moses movies, for it does make the movies appear less authentic.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Against Calvinism, by Roger Olson

Roger E. Olson.  Against Calvinism.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

Roger Olson is an Arminian theologian.  I decided to read his Against Calvinism after I had read another book that was supportive of Calvinism.  I was curious about how an Arminian like Olson would explain the biblical passages that Calvinists cite in favor of Calvinism.  I also wondered what exactly Arminians’ Scriptural basis was for some of their concepts, such as prevenient grace.

Before I will list my thoughts, allow me to offer a definition of Calvinism.  I define Calvinism as the belief that that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world, that Christ died to pay the penalty of sin for the chosen ones, and that God unilaterally changes the hearts of the chosen so that they believe in Christ and live a holy life.  Arminianism is a bit more difficult and complex for me to define in a sentence, but hopefully those reading this post who are unfamiliar with it will get an idea of what it is about in the following discussion.

That said, here are my thoughts about Against Calvinism:

  1.  In looking for a book to read about Arminianism, I was trying to decide between Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, and Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology.  You know which one I picked, since I am writing this blog post about it!  But I think that I picked the wrong one.  Although the book that I selected is entitled Against Calvinism, my impression as I looked at the Table of Contents was that it would also offer a constructive explanation and Scriptural defense of what Arminianism was about.  To give you a taste of what I am talking about, one of the chapters is entitled “Yes to God’s Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism.”  There are other chapters in the book that are like that: they affirm a concept, but they reject the Calvinist understanding of it.  That sounds partly constructive to me.  The thing is, Olson did not go into much depth on what Arminianism was, and, for that sort of discussion, he referred readers to his book, Arminian Theology.   So I will be reading Arminian Theology sometime in the future.  It may take a while for me to get to it, though, since I have a bunch of review books on my plate to read!  You may be wondering why I turned Arminian Theology down when I was deciding between it and Against Calvinism.  It just seemed to me that Arminian Theology would be responding to Calvinist misunderstandings of Arminianism: Olson would argue, for example, that Arminians do not believe that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves, but that God’s grace is necessary to make it possible for people to believe in Jesus.  But I already knew that about Arminians!  I was looking for a Scriptural defense of Arminianism, and an Arminian interpretation of passages that Calvinists like to cite.  But maybe there is more to Arminian Theology than I have assumed.
  2. Against Calvinism did have gems in it, and I will get into that as this blog post progresses.  There were times, though, when I was bored with the book, and the reason was that Olson was essentially making the same objections against Calvinism that I could come up with: that the logical consequences of Calvinism make God responsible for evil, or humans less responsible for their sins (since God contributes to human sin by withholding God’s grace).  Olson’s book can still be a valuable resource to those who are interested in Calvinism, however, because he interacts with what Calvinists have actually said.  Calvinists often complain that they are misunderstood and that their positions are caricatured.  Olson is clear that most Calvinists do not believe that God is the author of sin or that people are not responsible for their sins, but he does maintain that such conclusions are the logical outcome of Calvinist positions.
  3. The book talked about the diversity of Reformed Theology.  Prior to reading this book, I simply equated Reformed Theology with Calvinism.  Olson, however, shows that things are not that simple.  I was confused after reading Olson’s discussion about this topic, for I wondered what exactly made a person a Reformed Christian.  Olson was talking about Reformed Christians who did not believe that God predestined who would be saved and lost.  Well, if they do not believe that, in what sense are they Reformed Christians, and what is the definition of a Reformed Christian, anyway?  The impression that I got in reading Olson is that people are Reformed Christians if they are part of a church that is from that tradition, if they believe in God’s sovereignty (even if they do not go as far as certain Calvinists do in asserting that God plans everything out), and if they interact with Calvinist beliefs (i.e., TULIP).
  4. What particularly intrigued me in reading this book was Olson’s description of how Calvinists wrestle with their own positions.  In the Bible, I see different concepts: that God desires people’s repentance and is disappointed and saddened when they do not repent, and yet that God can play some role in softening and hardening people’s hearts.  How can God be saddened when people do not repent, when God arguably plays a role in people’s failure to repent (not that Olson or Arminians would agree with the latter, but I am setting up a Calvinist dilemma)?  Many Calvinists say that God has different kinds of wills.  That has long struck me as rather silly, for we are dealing with a single being, God, and how can a single being have contradictory wills (without having a split personality, that is)?  Some Calvinists, however, maintain that God has complex motives: God may be saddened when people do not repent, and yet God arranges for them not to repent for his own glory.  God wants to demonstrate God’s justice against sin (a la Romans 9:22-23, depending on how one interprets that passage).  God wants something, but God subordinates that desire to a more important desire.  Olson is not convinced, and I, too, question whether this solves the problem of God having different wills, but I did find such Calvinist attempts to be intriguing, for they attempt to explain how God having contradictory wills could fit into a single, coherent divine personality.
  5. According to Olson, some Calvinists have also wrestled with the Calvinist concept of unconditional election, the belief that God chose who would be saved, without considering the types of people the elect would be.  Some Calvinists do not want to believe that God randomly and arbitrarily picked people, like God’s choice was a lottery, for they believe that God picked whom he picked for a reason.  Olson says that their stance is inconsistent with unconditional election, and yet I wondered: Why not?  Granted, Calvinists do not want to say that God selected those whom he knew would be good people, or whom he knew would believe, for the view of Calvinists is that God saves people by grace, not on account of anything meritorious within them.  Still, does that necessarily mean that God did not choose whom he chose for a reason?  God may choose to save a notorious criminal, for example, because that person’s changed life could give him glory.
  6. This brings me to another question: Should Christians have to choose between Calvinism and Arminianism?  I am not advocating for “Calminianism,” for I tend to agree with critics of that who say that Calvinism and Arminianism have concepts that are mutually contradictory and cannot be logically reconciled with one another (though I have to admit that I have yet to read Calminian books!).  What I am suggesting is that God may work in different ways in different situations.  Maybe there are situations in which God might choose to harden a sinner, or to bend a person’s will towards him.  Does that mean that we have to embrace some full-fledged scenario that says that God decided who would be saved and damned before the foundation of the universe, and that God gave and withheld grace on the basis of that decree, no ifs, ands, or buts?  Not necessarily, I don’t think.
  7. Olson does occasionally present Arminian or revisionist Reformed understandings of biblical passages that Calvinists like to cite.  He refers to the view that Romans 9-11 is about the mission of Israel and the church rather than God picking who would be saved and lost.  Acts 2:23 says that the Jewish leaders killed Jesus by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (to draw from the KJV’s language), and Olson interprets that to mean, not that God caused the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, but rather that God knew that the Jewish leaders were the sorts of people who would kill Jesus, and God arranged things with that in mind.  Olson referred to a Calvinist who was quoting (albeit without citation) Job 14:5, in which Job affirms that God has determined the days (lifespan) of man.  Olson does not offer an alternative interpretation to the Calvinist’s determinist reading of that passage, but perhaps one could say that Job’s speeches are not divinely-inspired.  On Acts 2:23, I would say that I find Olson’s interpretation to be reasonable.  On Romans 9-11, however, I am more conflicted.  I believe that the passage does relate, in some way, to salvation and not just mission, for the issue of salvation comes up, particularly in Romans 10.  Moreover, Paul could be applying how he believes that God generally operates (i.e., by grace, and by election) to the specific issue of Israel and the Gentiles.  At the same time, the end of the story in Romans 9-11 is about how many non-believing Jews, whom God has hardened, will one day be saved.  Romans 9-11 has a happy ending, which differs from the dismal picture that Calvinism presents.
  8.   I can write a lot more items, but this will be the last one, in terms of this post.  I am unclear about what prevenient grace is, exactly.  There are things that I find convincing and unconvincing about Calvinism and Arminianism.  What I find convincing about Arminianism is that there are biblical passages that suggest (as I read them) that God wants to save everyone, and that God is saddened or angry when people do not repent.  What I find convincing about Calvinism is that there are biblical passages that seem to indicate that God plays a significant role in turning people’s hearts toward him: in opening their eyes, in circumcising their hearts, in giving them hearts that are yielded to him and his law, in transforming them into the kinds of people who understand spiritual things.  I do not entirely understand how Arminians account for the latter set of passages.  Unlike Calvinists, they believe that God’s grace is resistible, but that God attempts to persuades people and makes it possible through his grace for depraved sinners to accept or reject him (whereas, without this grace, they would automatically reject him).  That is prevenient grace.  But how does that work?  Does everyone have it to the same degree?  If so, then why are people in different places spiritually, with some giving thought to spiritual matters, and others giving little if any thought to them (I think of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:3-9 and parallels)?  If not everyone has prevenient grace to the same degree, then how is Arminianism better than Calvinism, if God gives some people spiritual privileges that God does not give to others?  Does everyone automatically have prevenient grace by virtue of being in the human race, or does it occur specifically when God knocks on the door of certain people’s hearts and tries to woo them (say, at a revival meeting), even though there is the possibility that they can say no?  If the latter is the case, again, how is Arminianiam better than Calvinism, if God is choosing whom to woo?  Does prevenient grace entail being emotionally drawn to God, of having warm feelings towards God?  If so, then how could a person say “no” to God in that sort of emotional state?  I think that the Calvinist question of why we prefer what we prefer—-the observation that we have preferences that we did not ask for—-is an excellent point that deserves consideration, even if Olson is correct about the unattractive ramifications of it (i.e., that we are technically not responsible for our own choices).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mark 7:24-20: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

The sermon at church this morning was entitled “Humility: The Ultimate Faith Additive.”

The text for the sermon was Mark 7:24-30.  In this text, Jesus went to the region of Tyre, and he found a house there where he could stay.  According to the text, Jesus did not want anyone to know he was there.  But a Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter was demon-possessed, heard that Jesus was there.  She came to him, bowed at his feet, and asked Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter.  Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The woman then said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus responded, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  The woman went home, and her daughter was in bed.  The demon had left her.

(In my description of the story above, I draw some from the language of the New Revised Standard Version.)

The person preaching to us this morning made a variety of points about this story.  She noted that this story occurs after Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees had questioned Jesus because his disciples were eating without ritually washing their hands, and Jesus criticized the Pharisees, then taught his slow-to-understand disciples that true defilement is within human beings.  According to the preacher this morning, the reason that Jesus in Mark 7:24-30 was in Tyre and did not want anyone to find him was that he was frustrated.  She said that this was Jesus’ “human side.”  Jesus and the person in whose house he was staying probably did not want that Syro-Phoenician woman bothering them, the preacher said, but the Syro-Phoenician woman was not going away: she wanted Jesus to heal her daughter.  But she was humble about it.  She did not get defensive when Jesus compared her to a dog.  And her stance towards Jesus was a humble stance.  The preacher said that Jesus is an additive that makes a difference in a person’s life, and that humility is an additive to one’s faith in Jesus that makes a difference.

I have a variety of thoughts.
  1.  I have had issues with humility and worship as of late.  In God’s eyes, according to my understanding, it is not enough for us to respect God as superior to us; no, we have to love, worship, and adore him.  But I have difficulty loving and worshiping God, if he is a certain way.  As usual, I have been struggling with those passages in which Jesus says that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:25-26).  I hate those passages (assuming my understanding of them is correct).  They seem to me to condition God’s forgiveness and acceptance on things that are difficult to do, things that few, if any, people do perfectly.  I have a hard time worshiping God and calling him a God of lavish love and grace, if that is the way that he is.  Plus, I am repulsed by the idea of groveling before God.  “Oh please, master God, disregard my doubts.  Don’t beat me or my loved ones!  Bring good things to my life!  I promise I won’t have bad thoughts about you!”  Not a very attractive picture, is it?
  2. Still, I do respect the Syro-Phoenician woman.  She loved her daughter, and she was willing to suffer rejection and indignity so that her daughter might be healed.  That is a parent’s love!  I do not see much indication in the text that this woman loved Jesus.  She loved her daughter.
  3. I may not like grovelling, thinking that such a stance is beneath me.  There have been times, though, when I have felt dependence on God.  I look within myself and see depravity, and I realize that I depend on God to be good.  I am afraid, and I throw myself on God’s love and mercy.  I do not look at those times negatively.  They are times when I magnify God and feel his strength and support.  I can also identify with feeling a need for Jesus—-for himself, and also for the peace and joy that he can bring—-and tenaciously praying to him, even when he seems to be silent.  In this sense, I respect the Syro-Phoenician woman.
  4. I do not entirely understand Jesus’ rationale for turning the woman down.  As the preacher said this morning, Jesus’ mission at this time was to Israel, and this woman was not an Israelite.  I guess my struggle is with Jesus’ analogy, as Jesus compares his miracles of healing with the children’s food.  Jesus says that it is not fitting for him to take the children’s food and to give it to dogs.  The children represent the Israelites, while the dogs represent the Gentiles.  But is there not enough food to go around, even for the so-called dogs?  It is not as if Jesus only has so many miracles to perform, for Jesus can perform miracles whenever he wants (well, then again, there is that troublesome Mark 6:5 passage, which says that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth on account of the lack of faith there).  Plus, it is not as if Jesus at this particular time was feeding the children: Jesus ran away from Israel to go to Tyre and get away from the children.  I may be asking the wrong questions, for Jesus’ point was probably that his blessings at this point were for Israel, so that Israel would repent and take her role in God’s plan; they were not for everybody, at that stage.  To give the blessings to others would undermine or compromise Jesus’ mission at that stage, he may have thought.
  5. The preacher’s point about Jesus making a difference in a person’s life resonated with me.  I recently read Robert Price’s Reason-Driven Life, which was a response to evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life.  Price was critiquing Warren’s suggestions on how Christians can share their faith, for Price seemed to regard that as a canned approach.  One of Warren’s suggestions was that Christians share the difference that Jesus makes in their life.  I find this suggestion to be helpful.  What difference does Jesus make in my life?  I have someone to go to with my problems.  I have someone who helps me to be and to do good.  I think that every Christian should ask himself or herself: What difference does Jesus make in my life?  That is not necessarily canned, for it can lead to a more authentic faith.

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