Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Interview

I’ve been reading a bit of both sides of the debate on whether or not Sony was right to pull The Interview.  One side says that Sony should not give in to cyber-terrorists or the North Korean dictatorship.  Another side (see here) says that Sony has justifiable reason for doing what it did, for Sony’s parent company is in Japan, which is closer to North Korea; plus, The Interview was pretty irresponsible, for it is about killing the North Korean leader.

I tend to side with the latter perspective.  I think The Interview went too far.  Some may say that the movie is just kidding, but to kid about killing a country’s leader?  I just don’t understand how some people can defend that.

The Andy Griffith Show: "Runaway Kid," and Moral Questions

I’ve been watching The Andy Griffith Show during my lunch time.  A couple days ago, I watched an episode that I found a bit puzzling.  It’s from Season 1, and it’s entitled “Runaway Kid.”

The episode starts with Opie and his friends playing cowboy in town.  Sheriff Andy Taylor (Opie’s father) sees them, and Opie pretends like he is shooting his Dad.  Andy plays along, then goes into the Sheriff’s office to get some work done.

Opie’s friends decide to play a trick on Sheriff Taylor.  Their plan is to move Andy’s car in front of a fire hydrant.  That way, the Sheriff, who is supposed to uphold the law, looks pretty dopey because he inadvertently disobeyed the law himself.  Opie goes along with their plan, and they make Opie promise not to tell the Sheriff that they were the ones who moved the Sheriff’s car.  Opie promises.
Well, Deputy Barney Fife notices that the Sheriff’s car is parked in front of a fire hydrant, and he decides to arrest Andy.  Andy asks to plead his case, and Andy asks Barney if Barney has ever known him to do anything illegal.  Barney says no.

Andy goes outside, and Opie comes up to him, confessing that he and his friends were the ones who moved Andy’s car in front of the fire hydrant.  Opie tells Andy that Opie promised his friends not to reveal this information, but thought that he should do so.  Regarding the prank, Andy laughed it off and said that there was no harm done.  But Andy did not think that it was right for Opie to break his promise to his friends.  Andy told Opie that he admired his character, but that Opie should remember the importance of keeping a promise.

Well, Andy’s words there bite him later in the episode.  Opie brings home a boy who has run away from home to be a cowboy.  Opie promised this boy not to tell the boy’s parents where he is.  Opie was holding Andy to that promise, too.  Andy tries to find some way around this promise, and his solution is to convince the boy to go back home to his parents, which the boy agrees to do.  Andy then calls the boy’s parents and tells them where the boy is.

Opie is outraged.  He thinks that his father gave him a rule that he then went on to break himself.  Andy then gives Opie a little lecture on situational ethics.  Suppose there is a sign by a pond saying that no swimming is allowed.  Suppose that Opie saw a boy drowning in that lake.  Would Opie obey the sign, or would Opie break the rule and dive into the pond to save the drowning boy?  Andy then said that rules are good, but that there are cases in which, to help somebody, one may have to bend the rules a little.  Opie agrees with his father.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  It took me a little aback to see Opie pretending to shoot his father, and his father having no problem with that.  But those are games that many kids play.  While one can say that this desensitizes kids to disregard the sanctity of life, many would respond that it is just pretend.  The same questions arise today, in discussions about violent video games.

2.  I was surprised that Andy was not disappointed with Opie and his friends for moving his car in front of a fire hydrant.  I just don’t care for those sorts of pranks.  Maybe it’s because I like for there to be order in my little world, and I would hate to have to pay a fine for something that I did not do.  I find that sort of prank to be inconsiderate towards other people, and I am disappointed that Andy did not gently rebuke Opie for that, and have a talk with the kids’ parents.

3.  I also do not see keeping promises as important as Andy did—-or at least I do not elevate keeping promises above avoiding or apologizing for pranks.  Let me be clear: I do try to keep my word.  But concealing people’s misdeeds on account of a promise that I was coaxed into making?  I just don’t find that to be particularly virtuous.  A “Who cares if we did wrong—-you have to be a loyal team player and not tell on us” attitude has been abused so often, in my opinion.

4.  I do not understand why Opie was upset with his father for calling the runaway boy’s parents.  What’s more, I do not understand why Andy was agreeing with Opie’s assessment that Andy broke his promise to the runaway boy.  For one, Andy himself did not make the promise; Opie did.  Second, even if Andy was bound by the promise, Andy did not break it, I don’t think.  Andy simply persuaded the runaway boy to return home.  If the runaway boy was not holding Andy or Opie to the promise, then the promise becomes null-and-void, in my opinion.

5.  The situational ethics scenario that Andy was presenting to Opie was excellent.  It showed Opie that there are times when higher values may necessitate a breaking of the rules.  Andy called it bending the rules, but let’s be honest: swimming into the lake in violation of a rule to save a boy is breaking the rule, not bending it.  Of course, Andy’s point could be fleshed out some more.  So we should bend rules to help somebody.  How far can we take that?  Can a person rob the bank to feed his starving family?  Well, in that case, he should probably seek out alternatives that would help his family, yet not entail him breaking the law.  Andy’s principle can be fleshed out, or perhaps re-articulated: one can bend a rule when failure to do so will result in clear harm to somebody else.  Maybe even that re-articulation needs to be fleshed out, itself!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Once Upon a Time Cliffhanger: Happy Endings

I watched the winter cliffhanger to Once Upon a Time last Sunday night.  I’d like to share what stood out to me and see if I can bring all that together into a coherent thought.

1.  Regina was the evil queen of the Snow White story.  She has been trying to be good, though.  Her problem is that, in fairy tales, villains do not have happy endings, and so she fears that she will not have a happy ending.  That is confirmed, in her eyes, when she loses Robin Hood, with whom she is in love.  Robin Hood is married to Maid Marion, who has been comatose due to a spell by the Snow Queen.  (Regina and Robin Hood did not fall in love while Robin Hood was married, for Maid Marion had died, but Emma and Hook went back in time and brought back a woman from the past, and she turned out to be Maid Marion.)  Regina helps bring Maid Marion out of her coma, but Marion begins to fall back into her disease.  Regina concludes that Marion can only be free of her disease outside of Storybrooke, for Marion needs to get away from magic.  The thing is, no one who leaves Storybrooke can ever come back.  Regina recognizes that Robin Hood will have to leave Storybrooke with Maid Marion, for it would be wrong to leave Marion out there alone.  Regina does the right thing, but she is depressed because she cannot have her happy ending.

2.  Regina has a talk with Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin, who himself has struggled in choosing between good and evil.  Gold has decided to pursue a selfish path.  Gold tells Regina that he does not need any author of fairy tales to write him a happy ending, for he will simply take his happy ending.  Mr. Gold then tells Regina that, as hard as it may be for her to believe, he hopes that she will have her happy ending, too.  Things do not turn out well for Gold, though.  Gold’s wife, Belle, whom Gold sincerely loves, and who has long rooted for Gold to become good, learns that Gold has pursued evil and rejects Gold, making him leave Storybrooke (she has a dagger that can control Gold’s actions).  Gold does not get his happy ending, after all.  At the end of the show, he himself wants to find the Author!

3.  Amidst her sadness, Regina actually feels happy that Gold lost out on his happy ending?  Why?  My guess is that it shows her that, on some level, the universe is still a fairly just place.  She is disillusioned because she did the right thing and is suffering for it.  It may be a relief to her to see that, notwithstanding Gold’s attempts to claim his happy ending while being selfish and evil, his selfishness and evil led to his downfall.  Doing good will not always lead to things going well, but evil often contains the seeds of downfall.

4.  What particularly interests me is that, on some level, Gold was being good when he was talking to Regina.  He sincerely wished that she might have a happy ending, and he was offering her advice.  I would not say that he was altruistic or was invested in Regina having a happy ending—-I am sure that if he had to choose between his happiness and Regina’s, he would choose his own.  But he was a detached observer, one who felt that he learned some valuable life lessons and was imparting those lessons to Regina.  While Gold is being somewhat giving on his path of evil and selfishness, however, Regina in her commitment to goodness gloats a bit over Gold’s misfortune.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Write-Up: Captive Trail, by Susan Page Davis

Susan Page Davis.  Captive Trail.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011.  See here for Moody’s page about the book.

Captive Trail is part of the Texas Trails series, also known as the Morgan Family Series.  This series focuses on the Morgan family in nineteenth century Texas.  In Darlene Franklin’s Lone Star Trail, the Morgan family makes reference to a member of the family who was missing.   Susan Page Davis in Captive Trail tells the story of this particular family member, Taabe Waipu (Billie Morgan), who had been captured by the Comanche.  Captive Trail is about how Taabe came to be reunited with her family, with the help of a mail carrier named Ned Bright, some nuns, and other friends.

The book was pretty slow at first, but I got really drawn into it when the mail carrier Ned brought a buffalo hunter who spoke Comanche, in hopes that this would help him to communicate with Taabe.  Taabe recognized the buffalo hunter and did not want to speak with him, so the nuns hid her and told the buffalo hunter that Taabe was not there.  Ned, later reflecting, concluded that there must be some reason that Taabe did not want to speak with the buffalo hunter, and that perhaps it was because she had an experience with him in the past.  Not only did I admire the respect that Ned and the nuns were showing to Taabe in this scene, but the scene also made me long more for Ned to find a translator whom Taabe could trust, so that the barriers of communication could be redressed.

Another scene that I found moving was when one of the sisters was speaking to Taabe and Taabe’s Mexican friend, Quinta.  Taabe was telling the sister that her father died in the war, and the sister concealed that this war was the one between Texas and Mexico, to avoid causing a rift between Taabe and Quinta.  Taabe admired the sister’s judgment, wisdom, and consideration, and so did I, as a reader.

I was happy that this book from an evangelical Protestant publishing house was depicting Catholic nuns as heroes.  I would have liked to have seen a bit more, however, about the differences between Protestant and Catholic beliefs.  This was touched on in one place in the book, where Ned was explaining to Taabe that the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a hymn sung by Protestants, and that Protestants and Catholics worship the same God but have different beliefs.  But I would have liked to have seen more about this.

I am a bit ambivalent about the book’s portrayal of the Comanche.  I would have liked to have seen a more sympathetic portrayal of the Comanche, one that sought to understand issues from their point-of-view, without denying that there were Comanche who did some bad things.  The book did portray the Comanche positively, on occasion, but not as often as I hoped.  At the same time, the picture of the Comanche that we get is largely from the perspective of Taabe, who did not want to live with them.  The book acknowledges, though, that there were many captives who preferred to stay with the Comanche.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Write-Up: Discovering Delight, by Glenda Mathes

Glenda Mathes.  Discovering Delight: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.

In Discovering Delight, Glenda Mathes offers spiritual insights, using as her starting point verses from the Book of Psalms, particularly Psalm 119.  Occasionally, Mathes draws from Reformed Confessions.  As the book’s title indicates, it has thirty-one meditations.

The positive to this book is that, overall, it has good insights.  These insights include the importance of giving one’s problems to God rather than retaliating, how problems can be an opportunity to draw closer to God, and how one should use one’s talents for God’s glory rather than to make a name for oneself.  I found these insights to be edifying.  At times, Mathes raises a profound question, such as how impatience can be appropriate and inappropriate.  There are also times when she acknowledges her own flaws and how love for God’s word is not necessarily automatic but needs to be cultivated.

The book would have benefited, in my opinion, from more anecdotes, which would have allowed Mathes to show the reader what she was talking about, not just tell.  I appreciated her story about how the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was a reaction against Arminianism, but I would have liked to have seen more anecdotes, perhaps even some personal ones.  That would have made the book more interesting and given it a greater personal dimension.  Moreover, since the title of the book says that it is about loving God’s law, it would have been nice had Mathes shown us what meditating on God’s law is like—-by picking laws from the Torah and showing how they illustrate God’s character, for example.

The book could have been better, but I still felt in reading the book that I was sitting at the feet of a wise teacher, one with a deep love for God.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Whom Ye Know Not"

The sermon at church this morning was interesting.  We’re celebrating Advent, which is about anticipating the coming of Christ.  The pastor during the first part of his sermon was inquiring why John the Baptist was not at the nativity.  My thought was “Because John the Baptist was still a baby at that time,” and that is probably true, if one accepts what the Gospel of Luke says.  At the same time, I could somewhat understand my pastor’s question, for John the Baptist was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus.  In my opinion, John was trying to get people ready for the Messiah by encouraging them to repent.  By being in a spiritual state of mind that was oriented towards God and righteousness, people would be in a better position to recognize and to embrace Jesus’ ministry of compassion and healing as the work of God.  Those who did not repent would be focused on other things, or they would reject Jesus because Jesus conflicted with their power interests.

My pastor was making a big deal about John 1:26-27, which states: “John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (KJV).  I did not entirely understand how my pastor was applying this verse—-and I consider that a good thing, since that makes me think—-but I believe that his point was that we assume we know everything about Jesus and that we have a firm handle on who Jesus was.  We do not consider that Jesus can surprise us, or we fail to look at Jesus in fresh ways.  My pastor is neither disputing the importance of Christian orthodoxy nor suggesting that we should depart from that, I don’t think, but rather he is promoting a living relationship with Jesus, not simply assuming that we know all there is to know about Jesus and putting Jesus on the shelf, either trivializing him or forgetting about him.

What do I make of that?  Well, I have my own frozen image of Jesus, I cannot deny that!  There are all sorts of images of Jesus out there: Jesus the nice person who accepted everyone, Jesus the man who was not afraid to tell people off, Jesus full of grace, Jesus giving people a new law (or a new interpretation of the old law) more difficult than the law of Moses.  I tend to gravitate towards a compassionate Jesus, though there are doubts somewhere in my mind about whether that is the case.  I have just found beating myself up for failing to live up to certain spiritual standards to be a futile endeavor.  I have settled on compassionate Jesus!  I have resolved that no one will tell me otherwise!  They can have any Jesus they wish, but they are not taking away from me my compassionate Jesus!
But can that frozen image of mine close me off from learning new things, from gaining new insights?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

II Chronicles 11

I have three items for my blog post today about II Chronicles 11:

1.  v 15 states regarding King Jeroboam of Northern Israel (in the KJV):

“And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made.”

The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “devils” is sa-ir, which often means a goat (see here).  That is why a number of English translations render the term as “goat demon” when it appears within the context of pagan worship.

Raymond Dillard in his Word Biblical Commentary on II Chronicles made some interesting points about II Chronicles 11:15.  Jeroboam made priests for the goat-demons and the golden calves he had made.  Dillard notes that there is no evidence in Syro-Palestine that Israelites worshiped deities who had the form of animals.  Moreover, in this region, gods are usually standing on the backs of calves, meaning that Israelites probably did not worship the calves themselves but the deity who was using the calves as a sort of throne.

Dillard is arguing that the worship of deities in the form of animals was not distinctly Israelite, and yet he does not seem to believe that Jeroboam encouraging this sort of worship was historically implausible.  There are icons in Egypt in which deities are depicted in animal form, and Jeroboam spent some time in Egypt when he was on the run from King Solomon.  Could Jeroboam have picked up such worship during his stay in Egypt?

2.  II Chronicles 11:18-23 states the following (in the KJV):

18 And Rehoboam took him Mahalath the daughter of Jerimoth the son of David to wife, and Abihail the daughter of Eliab the son of Jesse;
19 Which bare him children; Jeush, and Shamariah, and Zaham.
20 And after her he took Maachah the daughter of Absalom; which bare him Abijah, and Attai, and Ziza, and Shelomith.
21 And Rehoboam loved Maachah the daughter of Absalom above all his wives and his concubines: (for he took eighteen wives, and threescore concubines; and begat twenty and eight sons, and threescore daughters.)
22 And Rehoboam made Abijah the son of Maachah the chief, to be ruler among his brethren: for he thought to make him king.
23 And he dealt wisely, and dispersed of all his children throughout all the countries of Judah and Benjamin, unto every fenced city: and he gave them victual in abundance. And he desired many wives.

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary presents a variety of Jewish interpretations about this passage.  Why were King Rehoboam of Judah’s children intentionally dispersed throughout the tribes of Judah and Benjamin?

Malbim states that it was to prevent a civil war.  Rehoboam made his son Abijah a chief and was grooming him to become king, even though Abijah was not the oldest son.  Abijah was born to Rehoboam’s favorite wife, Maacah the daughter of David’s son Absalom, and Rehoboam took Maacah after he had taken Mahalath and Abihail and they had borne him sons.  Maacah was a late wife to the scene.  Rehoboam perhaps feared that his other sons would be jealous of the younger son Abijah and the special authority that Rehoboam was giving to him.  Malbim’s point may be that Rehoboam was distributing his other sons throughout Judah and Benjamin and was giving them favors because that would lessen the chance that they could conspire in Jerusalem against Abijah.

Another explanation was offered by Malbim and Ralbag, and this was that Abijah was the one sending his sons throughout Judah and Benjamin, in order to consolidate his own authority.

3.  I read an article by Israel Finkelstein, “Rehoboam’s fortified cities (II Chr 11, 5-12): a Hasmonean reality?”, which appeared in Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 123, number 1, 2011, pages 92-107.  Finkelstein argues that Rehoboam’s fortified cities—-their location and even some cities’ names—-do not reflect Israel’s post-exilic period but rather the Hasmonean period, which was later.  I recall Finkelstein saying in that article that Judah was not really fortified during the post-exilic period, notwithstanding what Nehemiah says, but that the Book of Nehemiah reflects a Hasmonean context in that case.  Finkelstein bases this conclusion, at least in part, on archaeology.  Similarly, Finkelstein in another article, “The Historical Reality behind the Genealogical Lists in 1 Chronicles” (Journal of Biblical Literature 131/1, 2012, pages 65-63), contends that the genealogies in Chronicles are consistent with the boundaries in the Hasmonean period rather than the post-exilic one.

Finkelstein speculates that the Chronicler may have been presenting Rehoboam as building fortifications in order to highlight that fortifications alone could not save Judah: that they actually did not save Judah because Shishak of Egypt still invaded.  Rehoboam could not bypass piety towards God, which, for the Chronicler, was the true path to Israel’s security.

In my readings about Chronicles, I have encountered the view that the Chronicler does not care for Israel making alliances, for he believes that Israel should trust in God instead.  Does that mean that the Chronicler is critical of fortifications, as if they are human means for Israel to protect herself as opposed to relying on God for protection?  Well, II Chronicles 14:7 depicts the righteous King Asa building them, and his reason for doing so is that the LORD has given Israel rest.  The Chronicler does not explicitly criticize Asa for doing so.  And yet, later in the chapter, Asa wins against enormous odds by trusting God; later, in II Chronicles 16, Asa is criticized for trusting in an alliance and physicians rather than the LORD.  Maybe the Chronicler does not deem fortifications to be that good of a thing.  Or perhaps the Chronicler believes they are fine, as long as a king does not rely on them to the exclusion of relying on God.  Solomon did some practical things, and the Chronicler does not seem to criticize him for that; rather, he depicts that time as Israel’s golden age.

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