Friday, November 30, 2007

Henry Hyde (April 18, 1924-November 29, 2007)

Henry Hyde was the Republican Congressman from Illinois who spearheaded the Clinton impeachment proceedings. He passed away yesterday.

I remember seeing him three times on television, and I was impressed each time. The first time was on C-SPAN, when it was covering a House debate on abortion. Let me tell you, the 1990's were the best years to watch C-SPAN, for you got to see such colorful characters as Bob Dornan and Henry Hyde in action. In that debate, Bob Dornan called Jane Roe a "fake," but that was before her conversion to evangelical Christianity and, later, Catholicism. But back to our topic: Henry Hyde gave a powerful, impassioned speech against abortion. He presented it as a crime against nature, noting that even mother crocodiles will risk their lives to protect their young. In abortion, by contrast, a mother pays someone to kill her child (or has the government pay for it). Hyde also lambasted liberal hypocrisy, since liberals claim to support the oppressed and downtrodden, yet support allowing a procedure that kills helpless and vulnerable human beings. I thoroughly agreed with his speech.

The second time I saw him was on C-SPAN's coverage of the Waco hearings. I don't remember this incident as clearly, perhaps because Waco was a complex issue. A relative of mine predicted that the hearings wouldn't ask good questions like, "You guys claim you were interfering for the sake of the children, and yet those children died in the compound as a result of your actions. How do you reconcile this?" Yet, I turned on C-SPAN to watch the hearings, and Henry Hyde made this exact point. He didn't allow the Clinton appointees or the ATF to get off easily. He even documented what he was saying with sources that were hardly conservative.

And, of course, I watched him give the first speech of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, and he was awesome. He mentioned many judges who lost their jobs because of perjury, and he asked why Clinton's fate should be any different. His point was very important because many would try to reduce the Clinton impeachment issue to sex, as if the Republicans wanted to impeach Clinton for having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. Ergo, there were people who were calling Newt Gingrich and Henry Hyde hypocrites because there were extramarital affairs in their pasts (though I must note that Henry Hyde reconciled with his wife and remained married to her until the day of her death). But the main issue wasn't sex. It was perjury. Clinton lied under oath, so he deserved to be removed from office, like other officials who commit perjury. The Clintons shouldn't be above the law, even though they seem to think they're entitled to special treatment.

According to wikipedia's article, Henry Hyde went against his party on certain occasions. He supported family leave legislation and the ban on assault weapons. And, much to my surprise, he was critical of the Iraq war from the very beginning. I like Republicans who are willing to think outside the box, at least when they are genuine conservatives and not RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

So America lost a great man yesterday. He was an intelligent and articulate defender of conservative principles. Too bad he never ran for President!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Politics Night

Last night, I watched the Republican U-Tube debate and a documentary on negative ads. Both were on CNN.

The questions for the Republican debate were not as entertaining as those for the Democratic one. I think that's probably because CNN edited out most of the good ones. After all, the snowman didn't even make the cut.

The debate had some good moments. There was a campaign ad that allowed me to see Huckabee before he lost all that weight. There was an animated Dick Cheney asking a question about the Vice-Presidency, and Fred Thompson thought for a second that it was making fun of him (Thompson). A homosexual officer who is working on Hillary's campaign supported the open inclusion of gays in the military, but we only found out after the debate that he was working for Hillary. Ron Paul got to speak against the globalist views of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, with CFR member Fred Thompson standing nearby. I wish Thompson had been asked to respond, but I felt that way throughout the debate--I wanted more candidates to have an opportunity to answer the questions. Instead, the usual format was that a question would go out, and only two or three candidates would be allowed to reply. Finally, Tom Tancredo criticized federal funds to send people to Mars, right after Huckabee praised such a proposal (which shows that a President Huckabee would probably be a big spender). Tancredo said that the government can't be all things to all people, and he's got a point there.

The audience was pretty feisty, as there were a lot of boos for McCain and Paul. There was also a lot of applause for them as well. In addition, the audience contained Chuck Norris (a Huckabee supporter) and Bay Buchanan (who looked pretty good, though I have no idea whom she is endorsing for President).

As far as the negative ads documentary was concerned, it did well to point out that negative ads are nothing new. After all, John Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson when he was running for President. There was also some revisionist history. Michael Dukakis said he was trying to run a positive campaign, which is not exactly what I remember, since Dukakis criticized the Reagan record. I mean, that's a crucial aspect of campaigns, isn't it? Showing that the other guy won't make a good leader. But, for some reason, Dukakis felt that the Willie Horton ad was just horrible. What was horrible, noble Professor Dukakis, was that you released a murderer from prison and allowed him to rape and assault innocent people. And that's precisely what happened, even though Dukakis and the "experts" were calling the ad a lie and expressing surprise that the American people were stupid enough to accept it. But I learned a lesson from the documentary that will help me if I decide to run for public office: If I'm attacked, be sure to respond. Dukakis and Kerry didn't do that, and they lost. Don't say "I didn't inhale," but try to offer some explanation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Catholic Eschatology

A long time ago, I worked at a homeless shelter for my Bonner Scholarship, and there was a Roman Catholic student who was working with me. He and I got talking about religion, and I asked him what Catholics believe about the end times and the second coming of Christ. He responded that he heard some things in his church about those topics, but not that much. Based on his experience, he said that eschatology is not really emphasized in the Roman Catholic Church.

As many of my readers know, I have been attending a Catholic church over the past few months, even though I'm not a Catholic. I go to the Latin mass, where the women wear head scarves (in answer to Steven Craig Miller, who asked a while ago what women wear at my place of worship). I like the priest's sermons because he knows his Latin, quotes the church fathers, cites Catholic greats like Thomas Aquinas, incorporates some philosophy, and speaks against abortion.

A few weeks ago, the priest was preaching about pride. He said that pride led to the Fall of Adam and Eve in the beginning, and that it will likewise exist in the end times, when the Antichrist takes his stand against God. "This priest mentioned the Antichrist," I thought in bemusement. "I didn't know Catholics thought about such issues." The week after that, I was in for a treat, for the priest's entire sermon was about eschatology.

The priest made a number of points, but I will mention only a few of them. First, he referred to a sixteenth century Catholic document that contrasted the Catholic view of the Antichrist with the Protestant position. The document was not in English, so the priest graciously translated it for us (which I thought was cool). According to the document, the Protestant view holds that the Antichrist has existed throughout history, whereas the Catholic position is that he will be a specific individual who will appear at the end of time.

The document's characterization of the Protestant belief was most likely accurate during the sixteenth century, when many Protestants called the pope the Antichrist. Although the priest giving the sermon assumed that this is the current Protestant position, in reality he is only half right. The view I heard growing up was that the Beast power will be the resurrection of the Roman Empire. That means that it has in some sense existed throughout history, but that it will also culminate in a specific individual at the end of time. I checked the Catholic Encyclopedia to see Catholic ideas on who the Antichrist will be, and one view is that he will be from the Israelite tribe of Dan, which is why Dan is not mentioned in Revelation 7's list of tribes.

Second, the priest said that Enoch and Elijah will return to earth at the end of time to preach repentance and oppose the Antichrist. For the priest, Enoch and Elijah are the two witnesses of Revelation 11. He identifies Elijah as one of the two witnesses because God promises to send Elijah before the day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). His argument for Enoch being the other witness seems to be that Enoch was also taken to heaven and was called an example of repentance in Sirach 44:16, implying perhaps that Enoch will one day call the nations to repentance. The priest said that this is not official Catholic doctrine, and I agree with him on that point. I remember reading the notes to Revelation 11 in my Catholic New American Bible, and they identified the two witnesses as Peter and Paul. Their approach to eschatology appeared to be rather preterist, which holds that much of prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. So the Catholic Church must contain a variety of eschatological viewpoints.

Third, the priest said that the conversion of the Jews will be another sign of the end. He said that not everyone with the name "Stein" is necessarily Jewish, and I don't know if he was referring to the Khazars when he made that point. But he said that we will have to see how this prophecy will be fulfilled when the event actually happens. I'm amazed at how many interpreters accept the latter day conversion of the Jewish people. I always assumed that only dispensationalists held this position, while non-dispensationalists interpreted the "all Israel" of Romans 11:26 to be the church. But I have read Charles Haddon Spurgeon and John Gill affirm that physical Israelites will one day receive Christ, and Gill does not interpret the Old Testament in a literal, dispensationalist manner. He applies much in the Old Testament to the church, and yet even he thought that God had a plan for the Jewish people.

So I was glad to hear a Catholic talk about eschatology. I'm looking forward to this priest's sermon next week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Jewish Philosopher, God, and the Holocaust

Yesterday, I referred briefly to Jewish Philosopher's (aka Jacob Stein's) belief in God's incorporeality. Today, I will enter more sensitive, controversial territory and address his views on the Holocaust. In The Holocaust--A Painful Miracle, Stein states the following:

"The Jewish Enlightenment began in Berlin in 1783 with the publication of a translation of the Pentateuch into German by Moses Mendelssohn. From there it spread across Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, causing the most flagrant, voluntary abandonment of Jewish observance in history. Millions of Jews embraced secular Zionism, Communism and Socialism. As the Torah predicts, devastation followed. Beginning in Berlin, spreading across Europe but primarily eastward, the war against the Jews spread, just as the Jews’ war against God had spread. One rabbi, who was later murdered, commented 'Because people no longer believe in hell, God brought hell to this world.'"

As one would expect, most of the responses to Jewish Philosopher's post were not too favorable. I didn't read all of them, but there were comments that Stein is a sicko.

But Stein's critics should address his argument rather than resorting to emotionalism. Stein's viewpoint exists for a reason, namely, that the Torah curses Israel if she disobeys the Torah. The Holocaust was indeed a horrible event, but the Bible presents God as capable of causing horrible events. Just read Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28, and the Book of Lamentations.

But I find myself in disagreement with Stein's thesis. The reason is that Jewish liberalism still exists, even after the Holocaust. If God sent the Holocaust to stop Jewish liberalism, then he failed miserably. Israel, after all, is a secular state, and many Jews do not follow the Torah in a strict, orthodox manner. In Deuteronomy 30, God says that he will reverse his curses on the Israelites if they repent, but God has blessed the state of Israel despite the failure of many Jews to repent of their liberalism. So I'm not sure if one can interpret the history of the Jewish people in light of Deuteronomy 28-30.

And what I said applies to certain Christian interpretations of the Holocaust as well. Once or twice, I've heard Christians say that the Holocaust was God's punishment on the Jews for rejecting Jesus. But the Holocaust happened, and most Jews still do not believe Jesus is the Messiah. Again, if God was using the Holocaust to convert Jews to Christianity, then he failed. Also, if the extreme Christian interpretation is correct, then why aren't the Jews still cursed? They haven't repented of their unbelief.

Where was God during the Holocaust? I don't know. I'm not even sure if anyone can conjure up an answer that is truly satisfactory. I think that Germany's defeat in World War II demonstrates that good ultimately triumphs over evil, as the Bible affirms on numerous occasions. I also like Jewish Philosopher's post, Where Was God During the Holocaust? , which points out that the Holocaust actually prevented the Germans from winning the war, demonstrating that evil has a self-destructive tendency. But can anything truly justify the suffering and death of millions of people?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Biblical Anthropomorphism

Yesterday, I argued that God in the Bible regretted going too far in his wrath. Whenever one reads something in the Bible that affirms this point, there are always Jewish and Christian apologists who will try to explain the passage away. "The passage does not really mean that God regretted his actions," they would say. "After all, if it meant that, then the passage would contradict what we know about God. God can do no wrong, and God regretting his actions implies that God did something wrong. The passage is an anthropomorphism. You see, we humans are unable to understand God, since we are limited. So the Bible often presents God as someone who possesses human features, including body parts and emotions. God doesn't really have these things, mind you, but the Bible is trying to make God more comprehensible to our puny, inadequate minds."

I have problems with this approach. For one, it seems to argue that the Bible is full of white lies. Second, why would the biblical authors go to the trouble of presenting God in a certain way if they did not expect us to accept their portrayal? Third, even if the Bible contains anthropomorphisms that we are to reject, what are people of faith supposed to do with the anthropomorphic portrayals? Do they point to any truth about God? These are questions that I wish traditionalists would answer. Instead, my impression is that they toss out the term "anthropomorphism" to avoid difficult questions.

One blog that I have started to read is Jacob Stein's Jewish Philosopher. I like it because the author is not afraid to be controversial. In his post, Why is God Invisible?, he managed to spark a debate about anthropomorphism. While Stein defends the concept of God's incorporeality, some of his readers refer to biblical passages in which God has a body. And they have a point. After all, God showed Moses something physical in Exodus 33:23. When Moses asked to see God, God could have replied, "I don't have a body to show you, Moses, for I am spirit," but God didn't say that. He showed Moses his back.

The side that says God is incorporeal and without passion certainly has prooftexts to back itself up. A good source for this is the Westminster Confession. I like the way that the Westminster Confession defends its doctrines with Scripture. On the subject of God, the Confession refers to Deuteronomy 4:15-15, John 4:24, and Luke 24:39 to support God's incorporeality, and Acts 14:11, 15 to argue that God is without passion. Deuteronomy 4:15-16 is not necessarily a good prooftext, since the point of that passage is that God didn't show the Israelites a form, not that he lacks one altogether. But John 4:24 says that God is spirit, and Luke 24:39 says that a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones, so I can see how the Confession might conclude from these verses that God doesn't have a body. And Acts 14:11, 15 contrasts humans who have passions with gods who lack them. So, at least by New Testament times, there may have been a belief that God is incorporeal and without passion. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo engages this topic, so it was on the radar screen of the first century C.E.

But, even before then, there is a view in Scripture that God does not change in the same way that humans do. I Samuel 15:29 says, "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent." Malachi 3:6 has, "For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." Do we see here the notion that God is a perfect being who makes the right decision the first time around, meaning that he doesn't need to change his mind? Possibly so.

So the traditionalists who appeal to anthropomorphism may not only be trying to reconcile the Bible with Plato's static deity (not that they'd acknowledge that as their explicit goal in the first place). Perhaps they also want to reconcile the Bible with itself--to present the Bible as a harmonious document with a consistent message about God. Unfortunately, the result is that they do not take certain passages as seriously as they should.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Maybe I Went Too Far This Time"

I heard a sermon a few weeks ago on anger. It was at a Catholic church that I attend. Much of what the priest said was standard: there is right anger (righteous indignation) and wrong anger (which is selfish and hateful). The priest also said that parents should never discipline their kids while they are angry. He probably said this because parents can go overboard when they act out of anger; once they let the anger pass, however, they are more likely to be fair and levelheaded in their discipline. When he made the latter statement, a thought entered my mind: "Didn't God discipline people when he was angry? Is God's justice always (or ever) dispassionate?"

The question occurred to me because of something I read in Jeremiah not long ago. In Jeremiah 42, Jeremiah speaks to the people who were remaining in the land of Judah after the Babylonian invasion. In v 10, Jeremiah says in God's name, "If ye will still abide in this land, then will I build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up: for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you." When I first read this verse, I interpreted it as follows: "Okay, I went a little too far in my punishment, I'll admit. I was angry. But I've changed my mind. I'm willing to give you people a second chance right here and right now. You don't have to wait 70 years for your nation to have a new beginning, as I originally promised. I'll work with you right now." But the story turns out to vindicate God's original plan to destroy Judah (at least for a season). Even after God makes the Judahites a promise of immediate blessing, they distrust him, reject his word, and disobey his command, for they flee to Egypt rather than staying in Judah. So God's first instincts were correct! It would take a lot more discipline before the Judahites were ready for restoration.

This is not the first time that God acknowledges he may have gone too far. In Genesis 8:21, God says, "I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done." Here, God seems to be saying, "I just can't keep wiping out all of my creation whenever humanity gets too sinful! If I do that, then I'll be destroying it on a regular basis, since human beings are inherently wicked. I guess I'll have to put up with them and work with them any way I can."

The strange thing, however, is this: Although these passages present God as acting out of anger, the biblical narrative as a whole does not portray God as impulsive. God put up with humanity's corruption for several years before he sent the flood. For centuries, he endured Israel's flagrant transgression, until he finally decided to do something about it. So God is not exactly like a parent who gets mad at his child and starts spanking her until she bleeds. God had time to deliberate about what he was going to do.

At the same time, God seems to regret his punishment of the sinners. Perhaps that's because it was only theoretical to him when he was talking about it, but he saw how horrible it was once he actually did it and observed its effects. Initially, God was saying, "I am so mad at you! I will do such and such to teach you a lesson!" But once he did such and such, he saw how disastrous it was and regretted his action.

But was God wrong to punish sinners? I don't think so. What else could he have done? Had he allowed the generation of the flood to continue in its sinful ways, humanity would probably be worse today than it actually is. And what else could God have done to Israel to turn her from her sins? He had already sent famines, and those weren't producing any repentance. God had to shake her dramatically before she came to her senses.

Some may say that God does not resemble my portrayal of him because the Bible has a lot of anthropomorphisms, which are descriptions of God in human terms to make him more understandable. I'll address this tomorrow. Have a nice day!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

FSE: The War on Drugs

I read an interesting editorial in today's Indianapolis Star that criticized the War on Drugs. The author observed that many politicians and Presidential candidates have admitted to using drugs when they were younger. The list covers the political spectrum, as it ranges from Barack Obama to Newt Gingrich. Although society tends to see their past drug use as youthful indiscretions, the author argues, it is perfectly willing to let people rot in jail for non-violent drug offenses. Because the war on drugs makes jails overcrowded, many violent criminals have been released.

Part of me sympathizes with what the author is saying. Politicians got a second chance at life, so why shouldn't everyone else? What purpose does letting people rot in jail actually serve?

I can understand the view that there should be a deterrent to drug use, since it hurts the user and people around him. But if our concern is for the user, then why lock him up? Wouldn't it serve him better to get him the help that he needs? But what if the user doesn't want help? On some level, I think that many users recognize that they are doing the wrong thing and that drugs are an inadequate "solution" to their problem. Unfortunately, they are hooked. They need to learn how to overcome their habit and cope with life. But for those who don't want to quit, maybe there should be such options as jail or a fine. And perhaps the court should be harder on repeat offenders than it is on people who are arrested for the first time.

I'm not sure if I'd say "legalize drugs," since drugs are harmful, and society should send that message unequivocally. But the way that society currently deals with drugs is not making things better.

Friday, November 23, 2007

FSE: Will Indiana Go Blue?

The Indianapolis Star has a front-paged story entitled "War, Economy Have Red State Thinking Blue." The article is about a recent poll that shows Hoosiers' dissatisfaction with President Bush and their willingness to support a Democratic ticket with Evan Bayh on it. Evan Bayh is currently the U.S. Senator from Indiana. As Indiana Governor, he was rather conservative in that he was open to balanced budgets and tax cuts. As Senator, unfortunately, he more or less votes along the liberal Democratic line.

The poll did not say how Hoosiers feel about the Democratic Congress. Sure, Bush and Cheney have low approval ratings throughout the country, but so does the Democratic Congress, so why declare the death of Indiana as a red state?

Moreover, the poll does not prove that most Hoosiers are becoming liberal. They disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy and the federal budget, but so do many conservatives. I like the Bush tax cuts, but out-of-control federal spending and printing lots of paper money are bad ideas, regardless of which party is in power. Hoosiers are evenly divided on keeping the Bush tax cuts, with 39% wanting them to expire, 42 % supporting them, and 19 % answering "Undecided." But there is overwhelming opposition to Bush's immigration policy, as 69% disapprove of giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Of course, the author of the story got some liberal professor to explain that away, saying, "If the economy was doing better, people would not see it as such a big issue...I think a lot of people are kind of blaming job losses and other expenditures they can't account for on the issue of illegal immigration." Isn't that like a lot of liberals? The average American disagrees with them, so he must be simple-minded.

There is one part of the poll that discourages me, and that is that 60% support socialized medicine. I'm sorry to act like that professor on the illegal immigration issue, but I think that many Americans support socialized medicine because they see it as the only alternative to the status quo. In reality, there are horror stories about countries that have "universal health care." Moreover, if more government spending is problematic for the economy, then why should the government spend more on health care or education, as the Democrats propose?

I know liberals will seize upon this study to argue that conservatism does not work, and that the solution is to support candidates who want to raise taxes and spending, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, and prevent the oil drilling that is so necessary to bring down gas prices. But the problem is not that conservatism doesn't work. The problem is that it hasn't been thoroughly tried. And, if the Democrats gain power, it won't be.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

FSE: Thanksgiving 2007

Well, today is Thanksgiving, and I try to write about holidays whenever they come. So what are my thoughts and musings about Thanksgiving today?

At the moment, what comes to my mind are things I've done for Thanksgiving in the past. When I was a kid, there were years when my brother, sisters, cousins, and I would put on a play about the first Thanksgiving, with pilgrims and Native Americans and the Mayflower and turkey--the works. Some years, we would dress up. Other years, we would make pencil puppets. I guess we kids were in charge of the Thanksgiving entertainment when I was growing up.

Then there were the traditional movies and shows that reminded us of the first Thanksgiving. The Mouse and the Mayflower was one of my favorites. Too bad it costs tons of money on Amazon right now! There was also a series of Peanuts specials on American history, and one of the shows was about the pilgrims. I don't remember much of it, but I do recall that Squanto taught the pilgrims to farm by placing fish on the soil.

As I became older, I read things to remind myself of the history of Thanksgiving. One was a book entitled If the Foundations Be Destroyed, which was about America's Christian heritage. It wasn't exactly a politically correct narration of history, but it had a good chapter on the pilgrims and how God guided them to America. I mean, there were times when the pilgrims could have died. The Mayflower almost exploded because of a young man's prank. Rain was scarce in a year that the pilgrims desperately needed it. But the pilgrims prayed to God, who acknowledged their dependence on him and provided for their needs. God even sent them Squanto, a Native American who knew English and had travelled around the world. What were the odds of that happening by chance?

Something else that I read was the account of William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth. No, I don't think he's one of my ancestors, though I certainly would like people to think that! Bradford mentioned a lot of the events that were in the Foundations book, but there was one part of his account that always puzzled me: the Maypole. He said there were settlers who were dancing around it, and he considered it pagan, but I didn't know what it was. When I saw the original Wicker Man (with Edward Woodward, the Equalizer), I had a clearer idea. Bradford talked about the Maypole the same way that the Old Testament prophets discussed the prophets of Baal.

Part of me always sympathized with the religion of the pilgrims. I grew up in a denomination that did not observe Christmas, and the pilgrims didn't keep it either. I guess my family wasn't the only weird group in the history of America! Nowadays, however, I'm not sure if I sympathize with their religion as much. Basically, they were anti-Catholic. They wanted to separate from the Church of England because it had some Catholic elements in its worship. If you want a picture of what the situation was, rent the movie Cromwell (with Alec Guinness, or Obi-Wan Kanobe), in which Oliver Cromwell threw a fit when he saw a cross in his church. I now attend a Catholic church (though I'm not Catholic), and the only problem I've had with the Episcopalians is that they are liberal (after all, they produced "Bishop" Spong!). I'm not sure if I would have had the same beliefs as the pilgrims had I lived in those days. Still, I admire the fact that they left everything and risked their lives for their convictions.

So what am I going to think about this year on Thanksgiving? I guess I'll just be thankful. God has blessed me with good family and good food, and he has preserved my life for another year. This is something I can appreciate, even though I'm not a pilgrim.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FSE: The Biggest Loser

This is a free style entry. What is that? Well, whenever I go home to my dad's in Indiana, I have to put up with a slow, dial-up Internet. Ordinarily, when I am in my Ohio apartment, I try to put a little research into my posts, and I can do so because I have high speed and can create all of these windows for articles and searches, even as I am writing. I can't do that on my dad's Internet. In fact, I'm having difficulty right now typing on it. So a free style entry is a post that is unrefined. It doesn't have much research backing it up. It is basically my gut-level reaction to various issues. Anything I say in a free style entry should not be used against me, since the fact that it is a free style entry constitutes a disclaimer. I'll indicate that a post is a free style entry with the initials "FSE."

Okay, now to my post. Whenever I go home, I have an opportunity to watch shows that I normally do not watch. Yesterday evening, I saw a reality show called The Biggest Loser. In my own apartment, I don't watch reality shows, since I think they're a waste of time. But I was at my dad's, and my sister was there, and she likes this show, and there was nothing else for me to do, so I watched it with her.

Essentially, the show is about obese people who are trying to lose weight through a rigorous exercise and diet program. Those who do not lose enough are voted off the program. I guess that what made yesterday unique was that the person voted off was actually a hard-working and well-liked person, so she was a threat to those who were not on her team. The show is hosted by Sami of Days of our Lives (another show I only watch with my sister, never on my own), and even she cried at the contestant's departure.

One thing that struck me about the show was that all of the contestants were saying that they were "new people" after their weight loss. My reaction was, "No, you're the same person, only you weigh a lot less." But they're measuring themselves by how they look. They think that if they look better, they are better. Society values physical appearance an awful lot. I know that I do that myself, but I really don't think about how prevalent it is in society until I see a show like this. The reason may be that everyone looks good on the shows I watch, so The Biggest Loser reminds me that there are people who don't look like celebrities, feel bad because of that, and work to gain acceptance through improving their appearance.

But my analysis is a little one-sided, for they are also improving on the inside through their participation in the program. They are learning self-discipline, self-confidence, and commitment. They are also becoming healthier, which makes them feel good. So there are qualities that they are developing, but the goal of the whole process is a good physical appearance, which is apparently an idol in today's culture.

Personally, I wish that I could motivate myself to exercise and eat right. I walk uphill to school, and yet that has not helped me lose weight. I really don't want to count calories before I eat something. I'm actually going to enjoy my Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, and I don't care how many calories I take in. I don't plan to eat a piece of asparagus while others enjoy turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry salad, and the other trimmings. So I admire those who are willing to put themselves through pain for any reason, even to look better. I just find that I prefer to enjoy things. Still, maybe I can exercise a little more.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hanna Rosen and Patrick Henry College

NPR had an excellent story a few days ago entitled Harvard for the Home-Schooled, Christian Crowd. It was about Patrick Henry College, an evangelical college with a large number of home-schooled students. It is an academy that is preparing young evangelicals to make a difference in the public square. This frightens many liberals, who fear that the religious right will one day set up a theocracy. The story included an interview with Hanna Rosen, a journalist who has written a book about the college.

I found the story to be touching. Hanna Rosen did not expect to like the Patrick Henry students. She is a Jew who was born in Israel and has lived in New York. Her social circle is very liberal. But she became friends with the students, and she found herself defending their right to participate in the public square. Her experience reminds me of other stories I have read. Carol Felsenthal was a feminist who cringed at the name "Phyllis Schlafly," until she got to know the conservative activist and found her to be a remarkable woman. I read this one blog by a liberal woman who hated Jerry Falwell, before she actually met the guy and discovered he was quite likable. Today's political climate tends to demonize opponents, so it is refreshing when someone discovers that the other side is composed of real people, with thoughts, feelings, and qualities like everyone else.

The story also highlighted a difficult issue: the doctrine that non-Christians will spend eternity in hell. Hanna told about a Patrick Henry student who was staying at her home. After the student had developed a friendship with Hanna and her family, Hanna asked her if she believed the Rosens were going to hell. After an awkward pause, the student replied, "Yes, but I'm not jumping for joy about that."

There was a Patrick Henry alumnus on the show, and the interviewer asked him if the Dalai Lama was going to hell. The alumnus responded that he heard a story about a previous Dalai Lama who had died holding a crucifix. His point was that we don't always have the full story about what people believe, so we can't make judgments about their eternal destiny. I think his point is valid. People often ask, "Is Gandhi going to hell?" They assume that Gandhi was a non-Christian. But Gandhi read the Gospel of John on a regular basis. He acknowledged his inner depravity. He had a picture of Jesus hanging on his wall. How do we know he didn't become a Christian before he died?

So the story was quite thought-provoking. Hope you enjoy it!

Alan Keyes

Our featured Presidential candidate for today is Republican Alan Keyes.

To be honest, I didn't even know he was running until I saw him on the Tavis Smiley debate on PBS. When he was standing among the other candidates, I thought he was one of the hosts. It turned out that he was one of the candidates. I wonder why he hasn't been in the other debates. He usually makes a big splash when he runs.

I don't know where I first heard of Alan Keyes. I know that when I first heard of him, I was mystified that there was an African-American who was actually a Republican. Before my exposure to Alan Keyes, I didn't know that there were African-American Republicans. I was a kid, and this was before Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly became famous. I wondered why African-Americans would support a party that opposed civil rights in the 1960's (yes, I accepted the liberal stereotype of the GOP). I've learned that African-American Republicans have good reason to conclude that liberalism has not benefited their community, but has actually made matters worse in a number of areas. The sexual revolution and the welfare state have not exactly encouraged responsibility, in any racial community.

My attitude towards Alan Keyes has always been rather mixed. Part of me gets annoyed with how he ties every problem to abortion and the disintegration of the family. While I am pro-life, I suppose that I have always sympathized with the Ronald Reagan approach to governance: prioritize the economy over social issues. I thought that a President Alan Keyes would try to ban abortion right off the bat, an impossible goal because of the polarizing nature of the issue. I figured that a President should try first to get the economy going through tax cuts and fiscal responsibility. Moreover, I wasn't entirely clear about what Keyes wanted to do to restore the family. He mentioned using the bully pulpit and eliminating the marriage penalty. "Does he seriously think that this will solve all of America's problems?" I sarcastically thought.

At the same time, Keyes has a point: abortion and family disintegration have contributed to other national problems, which have cost Americans a lot of tax money. Family disintegration has made poverty and crime much worse. And I remember Keyes in a 1996 interview connecting abortion with the Social Security crisis. The crisis was that there would not be enough people to support the baby boomers once they became senior citizens. According to Keyes, this was because many potential taxpayers have been aborted. I suppose that we cannot make a clear demarcation between economic and social issues, since the two are heavily intertwined. I still don't think that a President should make banning abortion his top priority, however, but that he should do what he can to support the pro-life cause. This would include appointing conservative judges and opposing federal funding of abortion, as President Bush has done.

On a personal level, there are a few scandals associated with Alan Keyes, particularly concerning how he handled his campaign finances (see Alan Keyes). Moreover, for whatever reason, staffers who worked on his 1992 Senate campaign did not support him in his Presidential runs. I'm not sure what to make of him as a father. His daughter Maya is a lesbian activist, yet she is pro-life and pro-school choice. She has spoken highly of her father, calling him a principled and religious man. Her parents accepted her when they found out about her sexual preference, yet they made clear that they did not approve of her lifestyle. Her father fired her from working at his Illinois office, however, because she attended demonstrations opposing President Bush, and he also cut off her college funding because he did not want her to become a leftist activist. So he's probably a lot more stern than I would be as a father (if I ever have children and face that situation), but he has managed to pass on to his daughter some of his values, and that speaks volumes.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mike Huckabee

Our featured Presidential candidate for today is Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican.

I first heard of Mike Huckabee when he was on Real Time with Bill Maher. Bill Maher is a liberal host with liberal guests and a rabidly liberal audience, so I root for any Republican who goes on his show. Whenever someone is introduced as a conservative or a Republican, I say, "Okay, it looks like you're holding the fort tonight." A Republican who appears on Real Time is entering a lion's den. From what I can remember, Huckabee did all right in debating the liberal guests, but he spent most of his time touting his personal weight-loss program.

Overall, I like Mike Huckabee, though I have questions about some of his policies as Arkansas Governor. He is a solid social conservative with a pro-life record. He opposed homosexual marriage and civil unions, and yet he also worked to reduce the number of divorces in his state. He is a true supporter of traditional marriage. Some conservatives have criticized him for saying that he "respects" homosexual couples, but I think that's just his tact. I believe that the state should uphold the traditional definition of marriage rather than allowing marriage to mean anything and everything, but I also agree that we should respect the dignity of all people, whether or not we agree with their lifestyles.

He is a Christian and a former minister. I like the way that he discusses the relevance of faith to his own life and his policy positions. His demeanor is that of a mild-mannered, gentle soul with the heart of a servant. I remember when I was watching Hannity and Colmes, and I saw him helping reporters take a picture. That probably doesn't impress a lot of people, but I'm attracted to the little things that demonstrate a person's character. He has been ridiculed for not believing in evolution, but he appears able to discuss the issue in an intelligent manner. On the Charlie Rose Show, he talked about a book he read by Francis Collins, a contributor to the Human Genome Project who has tried to reconcile faith with evolution. So Huckabee is a thoughtful Christian who reads books and thinks about his faith.

What concerns a lot of conservatives, of course, is his record on taxes, spending, and illegal immigration. I'm not sure what to make of his record on taxes and spending, and you can read the debate and links about it in the wikipedia article. My impression is that he cut taxes and spending when he first became Governor, but he gradually became more of a taxer and spender as his administration continued. There were taxes that he cut, and there were taxes that he increased. According to his critics, the taxes that he cut were not that significant.

He is proud of a state health insurance program for low-income children that he helped pass, and I do not judge him for his desire to help children. I hope, though, that his tendency is not to see more government spending as the solution to everything. On the Charlie Rose Show, he seemed to have an intellectual understanding of the problems with socialized medicine. He said that socialized medicine would lead to rationed health care, since the government could only allot a certain amount of money to health care each year.

On illegal immigration, he "vehemently opposed a 2005 bill sponsored by Arkansas State Senator Jim Holt which would deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, calling it 'un-Christian'" (wikipedia). He doesn't seem to maintain this stance as a Presidential candidate, however, showing that even principled people can pander. I admire the way that his faith leads him to have compassion for people, whether they be low-income children, illegal immigrants, or the heroes who have returned from Iraq (he has criticized the government's poor treatment of veterans). This quality attracts people who normally would not vote Republican, for he received 48% of the African-American vote when he ran for Governor of Arkansas.

I hope that Huckabee realizes that government is not always the solution, even as he continues to remember that there are real people who need help. I'm against socialized medicine, for example, but the alternative should not be the status quo, since health care costs too much in the United States. The right approach is to develop conservative solutions, and that is hopefully what Huckabee is trying to do. Regarding illegal immigration, I like the way that he sees the humanity of those who come here illegally in search of a better life, but he should recognize that illegal immigrants cost the American people in a number of ways. So Huckabee's compassion is a good thing, as long as it does not lead him to problematic "solutions."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Encouragement of the Scriptures

In both the Torah and the Book of Joshua, there's a story about Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh. These two-and-a-half tribes really liked the Transjordan, and they wanted their inheritance to be in that area rather than in Canaan. Moses replied that this was fine, as long as they helped the other tribes in their conquest of the Promised Land.

Origen saw this whole episode allegorically. He notes that Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh are all firstborn sons (albeit of different mothers), and he also observes that they received their inheritance under Moses. Consequently, Origen concludes these these two-and-a-half tribes represent the Old Testament saints, who (like firstborn sons) preceded New Testament Christians and were justified through their obedience to the Mosaic law. For Origen, the rest of the tribes symbolize Christians, who receive their inheritance through Jesus, the Greek word for Joshua. According to Origen, the Old Testament saints assist Christians in their struggle to overcome sin and live righteous lives.

How do they do this? Through the encouragement of the Scriptures. Origen gives some specifics:

"Consider how those who were justified by the Law before the coming of Jesus Christ my Lord come to my aid as I struggle today in the trials of this life and strive against enemies--that is, against contrary authorities. Consider how Isaiah furnishes me aid when he illumines me with the words of his text. Consider Jeremiah coming to our aid, well-girded and unencumbered, putting to flight the most violent enemies, the gloom of my heart, with the javelins of his volume. Also Daniel is well-armed for our aid, instructing and forewarning us about the presence and reign of Christ, and about the future deceit of the Antichrist. Ezekiel is present, signifying to us the heavenly mysteries in fourfold circles of wheels and 'a wheel confined in a wheel.' Hosea leads twelve squandrons of a prophetic band, and all advance with 'their loins girded with truth,' which they proclaim to aid their brothers so that, instructed by their writings, we may not be ignorant of devilish designs" (Homily 3 in Homilies on Joshua).

Origen sounds a lot like Joel Osteen and other evangelicals in his description of spiritual warfare. For him, life has a lot of trials, and Christians need all the encouragement they can get as they battle inner depression. They get this encouragement through the Old Testament.

I identify with what Origen is saying. When I was at DePauw University (my undergraduate institution), I wrestled with my usual problems of shyness, insecurity, alienation, depression, and resentment. One Friday night, I felt led to read the Book of Jeremiah, so I grabbed my Bible and a notebook and headed to the school library. I reserved my own room so that I could have some personal time with the Lord, and I started to read the Book of Jeremiah. After a few chapters, I would write down a summary of what I had read, allowing the details to settle more firmly in my mind.

Jeremiah really helped me. Here was a person who felt inadequate, insecure, timid, lonely, tired, and resentful. God had to assure Jeremiah repeatedly that he was with him and was working his situation out for good, despite the persecution that Jeremiah was receiving (even from his own family). The Book was an encouragement to me because Jeremiah faced problems, was honest about them, and got help from a sovereign and loving God.

But Origen presents another way that the Scriptures can encourage: we can forget our problems by focusing more on God's glory, which includes the reign of Christ and the splendor of God's heavenly realm. Add to this God's character of love and goodness. God is bigger than us and our problems. I think that God showed Ezekiel his heavenly chariot to give him courage for the days ahead. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was about to face a lot of persecution, and he needed to know in his mind who was really in charge.

I have one problem with Origen's interpretation, however: I am not fully convinced that the Old Testament saints were justified through their obedience to the law. Sure, there are passages that Origen can cite to support this position. II Kings 23:25 says, for instance, that Josiah obeyed the Law of Moses with his whole heart and soul. At the same time, the New Testament presents justification by the law as an impossibility. Paul says in Acts 13:39, "And by [Jesus] all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." Peter rhetorically asks in Acts 15:10, "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" I'm not sure how to reconcile these two concepts, but I do know that the Old Testament has encouraged me, as Origen asserts. On some level, the grace that God showed to the Old Testament saints has helped me throughout my Christian life.

Origen: My Bad Experience

Most of my readers probably know that I do a weekly quiet time. Every Friday evening, I read a chapter of the Bible and several commentaries--Jewish, Christian, and historical-critical. Unfortunately, one group of writers that I have neglected has been the ancient church fathers, who lived during the first five centuries of Christian history. I have sought to correct this deficiency in my study of Joshua by reading Origen's homilies on the book.

Origen was a church father who lived in the second-third centuries C.E. When I first read him, I didn't really like him that much. It was my first year at Harvard Divinity School, and I felt very alone and alienated, for a variety of reasons. I was looking for spiritual food that would assure me of God's love, and I found it in the writings of Martin Luther, Philip Yancey, Madeleine L' Engle, and (ironically) Jonathan Edwards. I decided to seek this kind of edification in Origen's Homilies on Leviticus. I had always liked Leviticus, and I hadn't read much of Origen, so maybe I could be edified by this wise church father.

But I was disappointed. He came across as, well, legalistic. There really wasn't much about God's love or grace in his sermons. His homilies didn't try to connect the sacrifices with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or God's loving desire to reconcile humanity to himself. Rather, he seemed to advocate what my dad calls "bootstrap religion," the idea that people need to become righteous through their own efforts, as opposed to letting go and letting God. For Origen, the sacrifices symbolized the need for Christians to cleanse themselves of sin. Origen also appeared to have ascetic tendencies. I didn't identify with any of this. I tried to cleanse myself of sin and continually failed. I could not get rid of my resentment, jealousy, insecurity, depression, and extreme introversion. That was why I liked authors who said that God loves me unconditionally. I was thirsty for affirmation in the midst of my loneliness.

I wondered how a pro-grace activist like Luther viewed Origen. Most of what I read in Luther's Commentary on Galatians appeared to be either positive or neutral about this church father, and a student in ancient Christianity at Harvard told me that Luther actually liked Origen. Sometime later, I read a quote by Luther that was critical of Origen's allegories, for he said that Origen hardly ever interpreted the Bible in light of the Gospel. For Luther, the Gospel meant justification by grace through faith, apart from works. "Bingo!" I thought. If only I had read this when I was at Harvard! Then I would have been comforted that someone else read Origen the same way I did.

I don't remember much from Origen's Homilies on Leviticus. If Origen emphasized the church in that book as much as he does in his Joshua homilies, then I would not have identified with what he was saying, since my faith was rather private. I was your quintessential "lone ranger Christian." I do recall Origen saying that atonement can come through death. I didn't know what to make of this, but I have found the same concept in Jewish writings.

I now like some of what Origen has to say, and I will be more specific about this in future posts. People change, and so does their reading. When I first read Origen, I assumed that I needed to agree with him 100% to be edified. Now, I'm more willing to disagree and articulate to myself the reasons that certain concepts don't mesh with me. That whole process is educational in that I learn more about myself, and (strangely enough) it can be edifying.

What Is the "Rest" of Hebrews 3-4?

When I was living in Massachusetts, the pastor of my church was doing a series entitled "Crossing the Jordan." He said that a lot of hymns and spirituals treat the Promised Land as a symbol for heaven. For him, that cannot be the case, for the Israelites did not experience bliss after they crossed the Jordan. Rather, they encountered enemies and battles. For my pastor, the Promised Land is a symbol for Christian sanctification, which includes the struggle against sin.

Incidentally, in my weekly quiet time on the Book of Joshua, I found that Chuck Missler said the same thing. I'm not sure if I agree with my pastor and Chuck Missler on this point. My reason is that the Promised Land is often presented as a place of rest, happiness, and prosperity. Sure, the Israelites had to fight to possess it, but they eventually had rest from all of their enemies (Joshua 21:44). So I can easily see the Promised Land as a symbol for the bliss of heaven, or (for Armstrongites who don't believe people go to heaven) wherever the saints will receive their future reward.

When I read Hebrews 3-4, however, I get more confused. What is the "rest" of Hebrews 3-4? Is it heaven, or is it a spiritual state that the saints can possess in this life? I can see the author of Hebrews 3-4 meaning something like the following: "You must keep having faith, or you will miss out on your heavenly reward, as the Israelites under Moses missed out on the Promised Land through their unbelief." After all, Hebrews 11 emphasizes the Old Testament saints' desire for a heavenly country (see vv 14-16), so heaven is in the author's thoughts.

At the same time, there are verses that seem to present the rest as a current spiritual reality. For example, Hebrews 4:10-11 says, "For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief." So the rest seems to be a present state of cessation from work. Christians have used other New Testament writings in their attempts to elucidate what this means. They refer to Jesus' promise of inner rest for all who come to him (Matthew 11:28-30), or they cite the Pauline doctrine that people become righteous by faith, apart from works (Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8-6).

But I have problems with this approach. For one, I wonder if we should use Matthew and Paul to understand Hebrews. As much as possible, I think that we should allow Hebrews to speak with its own voice. Second, Hebrews 4:11 exhorts Christians to labor for their rest. The rest that Jesus and Paul discuss, by contrast, appears to be a free gift that Christians already possess.

I guess the way that I reconcile all of this is to say that rest takes work. The author of Hebrews is writing to Christians, and yet he still sees a need to exhort and encourage them. Hebrews 10:22 says, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." The author of Hebrews wants his audience to set their minds at rest by focusing on their Heavenly Father and their faithful High Priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5-7; 12:2, 5-8). This takes work, especially when they're enduring persecution and the temptation to abandon their faith (Hebrews 12:2).

And maybe the hope of a heavenly reward plays a role in their current spiritual rest, since that gives them something to anticipate. The author of Hebrews may use "rest" to mean both heaven and the present spiritual peace of the saints. He wants his audience to maintain their faith as they endure this life, but he also wants them to receive their ultimate reward.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Does God Hear Non-Believers?

In the Left Behind series, Chloe Steele is on a plane, and she prays that God might send her a friend at that moment to help her in her loneliness. She doesn't know if God will acknowledge her prayer because she is not yet a believer. But God does. Her friend and future husband, Buck Williams, shows up and sits right next to her.

Does God actually hear the prayers of unbelievers? Does he speak to them in any way? Does God even have anything to do with non-Christians?

I've heard different answers from evangelicals. Some talk as if God has nothing to do with non-Christians. This one woman on a Focus on the Family radio program for teens said that God does not acknowledge the prayers of unbelievers, except when they request salvation (the sinner's prayer). Her reason is that non-Christians are alienated from God because of his wrath against sin, so God does not show them favor. For her, God is pure and holy, meaning that he cannot even look upon sin, so people need to be covered with the blood of Christ for God to be involved in their lives.

On the other hand, I've heard testimonies from people who act as if God has always been there for them, even before their conversion. "I was rebellious and wanted nothing to do with God," they say, "But God didn't give up on me."

As is often the case, both sides can find prooftexts for their positions. For the "God-does-not-hear-unbelievers" side, Psalm 66:18 says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." Isaiah 1:15 says, "And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood." Proverbs 28:9 has, "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." And, in Leviticus, we find that everything associated with the worship of God had to be without blemish. For many evangelicals, this is because God is holy and will only accept perfection, which is why we need Christ's perfect righteousness to cover us when we stand before God.

At the same time, there are passages in which God blesses sinners. In II Kings 14, God blesses Jeroboam II, the wicked king of Northern Israel, in his military goals. Jesus says that God is kind to the unthankful and the evil (Luke 6:35). According to Acts 14:16-17, even when nations walked their own way, God bore witness to himself, "in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness."

I think that God wants to communicate who he is to to everyone in the world. He wants all people to know about his love, his power, his justice, and his divinity so that they will accept him as God. His kindness to unbelievers has a goal, for Romans 2:4 rhetorically asks, "Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?" And, in my opinion, there may be times when God will answer the prayers of unbelievers to show them that he exists and is worthy of their worship. After all, was every request Jesus granted from a righteous person?

But what about the passages about God not hearing sinners? An important point to note is that God is actually talking to them. In Isaiah 1, for example, God warns the Israelites that he will not hear their prayers and then he explains why. So God is not avoiding sinners or choosing to have nothing to do with them; rather, he is still trying to communicate who he is and bring them to repentance. There is a dialogue between God and the sinners.

There are times when God may not acknowledge the prayers of the wicked. God doesn't want to bail people out of their problems all the time, for he wants them to learn valuable lessons about their sinful behavior. And there are times when God wants to demonstrate explicitly his hatred of evil, so he withholds blessings from the evildoer. God knows people's hearts and responds to them appropriately.

So I'm not sure if we can put God in a box or map out how God works. God works within the context of a relationship, so maybe he doesn't act the same way all the time. But we can be assured that righteousness underlies every one of his actions.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Clean Altar

Those who read me regularly probably get the impression that I'm reacting against my evangelical background. When I was in the evangelical movement, there was a part of me that got bored with reading the Bible. The evangelicals I knew made almost everything in the Bible about the substitutionary atonement or justification by grace through faith. If there was an sacrifice on an altar or an animal got killed in a covenant ceremony, watch out! The evangelicals would make it a type of Christ's death on the cross. I just got tired of the same predictable evangelical interpretations, explanations, and understandings. I became fascinated with Jewish and historical-critical readings because they offered me something new, or at least they exposed me to views I had not heard before.

Today, I'm going to be an evangelical. In Ezekiel 43, Ezekiel continues his discussion of the new temple, and, in vv 13-27, he describes the altar. For Ezekiel, before the altar can be used, it must be purged through the sacrifice of a goat as a sin offering.

Why? What did the altar do wrong? Well, nothing specifically, I suppose. But this is not the first time that an inanimate object needed to be purged. Check out Leviticus 16:16: "And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness." The tabernacle needed to be purged every year because of the sins of the people. When the Israelites sinned or became ritually impure, they defiled the sanctuary. God did not want to dwell amidst moral or ritual filth, so the Israelites needed to cleanse the sanctuary of defilement so that God would continue to dwell in their midst.

The reason that Ezekiel 43's description of the altar stands out to me is that it demonstrates the importance of blood atonement. There are many within Judaism, Islam, and maybe even mainline Christianity who act as if blood is not necessary for God to forgive sins. They assume that all one has to do to be forgiven is repent: be sorry for your sins, and start serving God. But, in Ezekiel 43, the restored Israelites could not simply build an altar and start worshipping God. They had to take care of their past. The altar needed to be cleansed of the effects of their past sins, and that cleansing was to occur through blood. Without this purification ceremony, God would not accept their worship on the altar. Only after blood atonement would God receive their attempts to please him.

As a Christian, I believe that people must accept the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf in order to be acceptable before God. Non-Christians can do good things and try to engage in worship, but those things do not lead to their acceptance by God, since they are still sinners. Their altars must be cleansed before God will be pleased with their worship and good deeds.

There is one passage that seems (on first sight) to militate against what I just said. In Acts 10, an angel tells the Gentile centurion, Cornelius: "Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God" (v 4). This was before Cornelius heard the Gospel and was saved. God seemed to accept Cornelius' prayers and good deeds, even when he was not a Christian! What do I do with this? I don't have a perfect answer, but I believe that God honors those who seek him. Cornelius' deeds by themselves were not enough to save him, since he still needed to hear the Gospel and become cleansed through faith (Acts 15:9). But God recognized that Cornelius was a sincere seeker of truth and righteousness, so he gave him more light, the light of the Gospel.

While I'm on the topic of the cleansed altar, I want to address a popular argument among Jews who don't believe in Jesus. Hebrews 9:22 says that there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. Jewish counter-missionaries have argued that the author of Hebrews is simply wrong, since the Torah presents a non-blood sacrifice that can remove sin. Leviticus 5:11-13 says, after all, that a very poor Israelite can offer some flour as his sin offering. But my response is that the poor Israelite is offering his flour on an altar that has been cleansed through blood. Otherwise, his flour would not be acceptable. So, in a sense, even the poor Israelites' sins are removed through the shedding of blood.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Wasn't It Built?

I've been reading Ezekiel for my daily quiet time, and I'm on the part about the new temple. In Ezekiel 43:11, God tells Ezekiel to tell the people of Israel the dimensions and features of the proposed temple so that they will build it after their return from exile.

But why didn't they build it? Here was a command, and they didn't follow it. Why not?

I've not combed through the writings of modern biblical scholars on this issue, but I have a hunch about what they might say. I can picture them saying that Ezekiel was not necessarily seen as the infallible word of God immediately after the exile, at least not in the way that many Christians and Jews have traditionally viewed it. Rather, there were a variety of post-exilic voices with their own versions of what God wanted the Jews to do. Some expected God to restore the Davidic dynasty, while others called Cyrus the Messiah. Over time, their writings became authoritative within Jewish and Christian circles, but they were not necessarily accepted as such soon after they were written. So why didn't the post-exilic community build Ezekiel's temple? One proposed explanation is that not everyone believed in Ezekiel's message.

Another possibility is that the post-exilic community did not see its restoration as the subject of Ezekiel's prophecy. Ezekiel associated certain events with the Jews' restoration, such as the renewal of the Davidic dynasty and the defeat of Israel's enemies, most notably Gog of Asia Minor. These things did not happen under Cyrus of Persia, for Israel was "restored" to become a subjugated puppet of the Persians, without a Davidic monarch. As a result, many Jews probably concluded that the restoration predicted by Ezekiel was not what occurred under Cyrus, but was rather to be fulfilled in the future. So the Ezekiel temple was postponed until the time of real restoration.

Rashi has an interesting explanation of Ezekiel 43:11. He says: "The second aliyah [to the Holy Land] through Ezra was merited to be like the first entry through Joshua, to come about by force and through a miracle, as expounded (Ber. 4a, Exod. 15:16): 'until… pass.' This Building would then have been fit for them as of then, when they emerged from exile, to an everlasting redemption. But [their] sin caused [this not to happen] for their repentance was not suitable, [i.e.,] they did not resolve to stop sinning. [Therefore,] they emerged to freedom [only] through the sanction of Cyrus and his son. Some say that in Babylon they stumbled regarding gentile women." For Rashi, God wanted to restore the Jews of the sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E. in a glorious fashion, which would have included Ezekiel's temple, but the Jews hindered God's plan through their sins.

I'm not sure if I buy this explanation entirely. The Jews' sins were not a problem for God, since Ezekiel predicted that God would give them new hearts and turn them away from sin. At the same time, perhaps God expected them to make the first move through repentance before he circumcised their hearts. But that goes back to my Ezekiel and Monergism series.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rahab's Assurance

I forgot to mention something crucial in yesterday's post on Rahab and salvation: Rahab had assurance.

Introducing good works as a salvation requirement can undermine assurance. Imagine that good works are a requirement for salvation. Does that mean I have to do something good (e.g., help the poor, smile at those I meet) every single day? Can I take a break at any time? Can I ever have the assurance that God just loves me, whether I do something good or not? Also, there is the question of how good is good enough. Do my good works have to be perfect for God to accept them? Suppose I have both good works and bad works. Does God weigh those in the balance in determining whether or not I enter his kingdom, as is argued within Judaism? Can I ever be at peace when works are a requirement for salvation?

As I said yesterday, there is a sense in which Rahab's faith and works were both necessary for her escape from divine wrath (the Conquest). She believed in God, but she also helped the spies, and she appealed to her good deed in persuading them to deliver her. Her good deed was not necessarily perfect, since she lied, but she did have a noble desire to help them and to be on God's side.

In all of this, she had some assurance that she would be delivered. The spies told her to tie a scarlet cord onto her window, and that would signal to the Israelite soldiers that they were not to touch her house. So the spies gave Rahab a promise that she could trust (which implies assurance), and her deliverance was based in part on a simple act: tying a cord onto her house. Christians such as Francis Schaeffer have seen a parallel between this act and the Passover ritual of painting blood on the doorposts to avert the Destroyer. For Schaeffer, the scarlet cord represents the blood of Christ, which protects God's people from divine wrath. This makes the Rahab story a lesson about justification by grace through faith, since Rahab trusts a symbol of Christ's blood to be delivered.

There was another condition in the spies' oath, however. If Rahab told anybody about the spies' mission, then the oath would be nullified. I do not know entirely what this means. Are the spies afraid that Rahab might send them to the mountains for three days and then tell the Jericho troops that they are there? Do they fear that Rahab will tell the people of Jericho when the Israelites are coming, and the spies want the attack to be a surprise? I don't know, but I think I can say this with some confidence: For the spies and the other Israelites, if the Israelites successfully attacked, then that would mean that Rahab fulfilled her side of the bargain and did not compromise the spies' mission.

So we have a recipe with all of these ingredients. Faith and works play a role in Rahab's deliverance, yet she exemplifies divine grace, since God gave her a new beginning despite her sordid past. Rahab must continue to be on God's side even after the spies' departure for her deliverance to be certain. Plus, Rahab is instructed to do a simple act that would protect her and her family: she is to tie a scarlet cord (the blood of Christ) onto her window. That gives her assurance, since it is such a simple act that safeguards her household.

So how does all this influence how I see salvation? I have no idea. I'll have to think more about that.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thoughts on Joshua 2

I am now on Joshua for my weekly quiet time, and I read Joshua 2 this last Friday night. Here are two thoughts:

1. Why were the spies sleeping at a harlot's house? I mean, there is a lot of discussion on whether or not Rahab was right to lie, but what about the spies, who were supposed to be righteous, God-fearing people? Is this yet another example of God using imperfect vessels?

2. James 2:25 says, "Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?" Rahab escaped wrath through both faith and works. She believed that the Israelites would triumph, but this belief by itself was not enough to give her security. After all, according to Rahab, most of the inhabitants of Jericho believed that the Israelites would win, but they were later slaughtered in the Conquest, despite their belief. Rahab's faith was not mere intellectual assent, but it was a conscious decision to side with the Israelites and their God. And her faith was expressed through works, for she hid the messengers and sent them out on another way. When she asked the Israelites to spare her and her family, she appealed to her works. At the same time, the fact that she was asking for mercy indicates that she did not see the spies as totally indebted to her, since she acknowledged that it was their decision whether to spare her or not. And grace was a factor in all of this, since Rahab was a harlot and part of a condemned people, plus the Israelites were forbidden to make a covenant with the people of the land (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). So Rahab's survival was not entirely based on strict law, which stood against her. Rahab exemplifies salvation. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness. We must have faith in the sense that we believe in God and side with him in his purposes. And our faith is expressed through our deeds, even though our deeds do not merit salvation.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How Can I Be Sure God Loves Me? Part II

This is Part II of "How Can I Be Sure God Loves Me?" I will examine another way that biblical authors and characters assured themselves of God's love.

3. God loves me because I do good deeds.

I know that Protestants will cringe at this statement, both the evangelicals who think that the entire Bible is about justification by grace through faith alone, and the mainline Protestants who assume that God loves everybody the same amount. But you find something like it throughout the Bible. Consider Psalm 18:19-26:

"He brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his judgments were before me, and I did not put away his statutes from me. I was also upright before him, and I kept myself from mine iniquity. Therefore hath the LORD recompensed me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his eyesight. With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; with the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward."

Can you imagine this author in an evangelical Bible study? "What do you mean you are upright and have clean hands?" I can picture the evangelicals saying. "You are a sinner! Any righteousness that you have is imputed. Any 'good' work that you do is tainted by sin. You do not deserve God's deliverance. If God delivers you, he does so because he is good, not you. You're sounding a little self-righteous there, to say the least!"

Or take Psalm 103:17-18: "But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them." Can you picture the reaction of mainline Protestants? "God is also good to those who do not keep his commandments, since God loves everybody the same amount!"

All sorts of people appeal to their own righteousness in the Bible. Job wondered why he was suffering. After all, didn't he live a righteous life, and wasn't God supposed to treat the upright well? Throughout Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah asks God to remember the good things he did in contrast to the evil deeds of his enemies. And Paul (or pseudo-Paul) talks about his clean conscience (Acts 24:16; II Timothy 1:3).

I would be simplistic to say that these authors or characters advocated salvation by works. The Psalmist often mentions God's forgiveness and the need for God to cleanse his heart (Psalms 31-32, 51). The vast majority of the Hebrew Bible is a story about God patiently putting up with rebellious Israel, in the hope that she would repent and acknowledge him. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ affirms that Christ died for us when we were sinners, not righteous (Romans 5:8).

At the same time, we should not brush the "God loves me because I'm righteous" passages under the rug. I think they're important because they assure us that God notices when we are trying to do good. Have you ever tried your utmost to do the right thing, but nobody seems to notice or care? Those who are compromising themselves morally seem to prosper, while you suffer despite (or even because of) your integrity. Well, the Bible assures you that God takes notice of your efforts and will reward you accordingly.

I also think that God has a special place in his heart for those who love him and keep his commandments. Sure, God loves everybody, but he is especially impressed when people make an effort to do his will. His love for everyone means that he wants all people to repent and avoid divine judgment, and he is willing to use warnings or kindness to bring them to that point (Romans 2:4).

But I don't think we should ever assume that God is indebted to us. Jesus says in Luke 17:10: "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do." We're supposed to obey God because he's God, meaning that he owes us nothing when we do his will. But God does identify himself as someone who takes notice of our good behavior and rewards it accordingly, so we can have comfort that we are speaking to that kind of God when we're trying to do right in a world that seems wrong. Yet, even in those situations, God rewards us because of his goodness, not ours.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Gov. G.W.Bush and Abstinence-Only Education

I said that I would review today the studies of various states on abstinence-only sex education. That project would require me to read hundreds of pages, and I'm not in the mood to do that right now. I may postpone this project for another day. Maybe I'll read them the next time a new study dogmatically criticizes abstinence-only sex education. Or I'll look at one or two of the studies when I don't have any other ideas for posts. At the moment, I'll give you the link so that you can read it, if you are interested. It is Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact. This study was put out by Advocates of Youth, and it has links to several state studies. Advocates for Youth itself is opposed to abstinence-only sex education, but what I read in some of the state studies was more complex than "Abstinence-only sex ed is a failure." The studies I scanned presented positive aspects of the programs or offered suggestions for improvement (e.g., greater duration, group discussions, role playing on saying "no," etc.), without necessarily recommending that they abandon their abstinence-only message.

What I'd like to discuss today is a popular liberal argument against abstinence-only sex education. I found it when I searched under "Bush AND abstinence AND Texas" on Yahoo. The argument is that Texas under Governor George Bush funded abstinence-only sex education, but the results were nil. Texas still had high teen pregnancy and STD rates, and its reduction in the teen pregnancy rate was significantly lower than that of other states. I'll make two points on this:

First, at least teenage pregnancy rates went down under Governor Bush. From what I can see from the Alan Guttmacher Institute's own statistics, they did not decline under Democratic Governor Ann Richards, whose daughter currently heads Planned Parenthood. The number of AIDS and Syphilis cases also decreased under Governor Bush (see the 2001 HIV/STD Annual Report). The number of Gonorrhea cases was lower under Bush than it was during previous administrations (since 1972). Texas was far from perfect during the Bush years, since the number of Chlamydia cases increased, but my point is that we should not say that Bush's Governorship attests to the utter ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education. His record was pretty good, as far as records go.

Second, looking at Texas by itself does not shed light on whether abstinence-only sex education is effective. During Bush's Governorship, there were times when California had higher rates of teenage pregnancy than Texas, and it also increased in the prevalence of certain STDs (see HIV/AIDS, STD & TB Prevention). California is known for its comprehensive sex education, so why don't we grade the condom-based programs poorly? Moreover, there are states with low teen pregnancy rates that have had abstinence-only programs. Iowa and South Carolina are examples. So the statistics of a single state do not invalidate the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education. The liberal appeal to Texas is a cheap shot at Bush, not a reliable analysis of sex education programs.

Friday, November 9, 2007

How Can I Be Sure God Loves Me? Part I

This will be a two-parter, and I will write the second part on Sunday.

My impression is that a lot of people wouldn't ask this question. "Of course God loves me!" they would say. But this is a question with which I have struggled. In this series, I will offer some biblical answers, my reservations, and how I deal with my doubts.

1. I know God loves me because Christ died for my sins.

This is a biblical answer. Paul says in Romans 5:8, "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." I John 4:10 states, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." One approach to this issue would be to say, "The Bible affirms that God loves the world, and I am part of the world, therefore God must love me." But Calvinists will point out that words like "all" and "world" in the Bible do not always refer to each and every individual. When Mark 1:5 says that all went to the Jordan to be baptized by John, for example, it probably doesn't mean everybody, since there are other passages that mention Jews who were critical of John (e.g., Matthew 11:18).

Consequently, most Calvinists argue that Christ did not die for each and every individual but for the elect, whom God chose before the world's foundation. So how can I be sure that God loves me? How can I know that I am part of the elect? Different authors have addressed the question of assurance. Some say that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Christian's heart (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). Others contend that the truly elect person will produce fruit of the Spirit, which includes love of God and others (I John 2:3-4; 3:14). I have problems with these criteria. I do not always feel assured of God's love, and I'm not sure when the Holy Spirit is speaking to me and when the thoughts are just mine. Add to that the possibility of false assurance, which Calvinists like to posit. This only compounds the problem, since, even if I do feel assurance, how can I know that the assurance is legitimate? Also, if my assurance of God's love depends on the quality of my lifestyle, then I can't have assurance. There are good things that I do, but I also have bad thoughts, feelings, and actions (sins of omission and commission). So Calvinism doesn't offer me much hope, even though some of its assurance tests are biblical.

2. I know God loves me because he created me.

Job appeals to this in Job 10:3, where he says to God, "Is it good unto thee that thou shouldest oppress, that thou shouldest despise the work of thine hands, and shine upon the counsel of the wicked?" When the Israelites appeal to God for mercy in Isaiah 64:8, they affirm, "But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand." The Psalmist prays to God, "The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands" (Psalm 138:8). Psalm 145:9 seems to acknowledge God's goodness to all of his creation, for it states, "The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works." So there is a thread in the Bible that assumes God cares for what he has created, simply because he created it. Don't most of us value the things we have made? This view in the Bible reminds me of a sign I've seen on more than one occasion: "I know I'm somebody, cause God don't make no junk!"

But I have reservations about this, again because of Calvinism. Paul says in Romans 9:21-22 that God can create some vessels specifically for wrath and destruction. So does the fact that God created something mean that he must love, value, and care for it? Not necessarily, if Calvinists are reading this passage correctly.

The way that I deal with this issue is to look at Romans 9 in the context of Romans 9-11. Paul is talking about Israel and the Gentiles. In Romans 11, Paul says that most Jews have been hardened toward the Gospel so that more Gentiles can have the opportunity to believe. But Paul is optimistic that, at some point in time, all Israel will be saved. So we see that God's hardening of the Jews, which is the topic of Paul's discussion in Romans 9, serves the ultimate purpose of expanding the number of saved people, not contracting it. What, then, does Paul mean when he refers to the vessels of destruction? I think he is saying that God demonstrated his wrath against sin through his punishment of the nation of Israel, which occurred in 70 C.E. I may be wrong, but my impression is that Paul does not apply Romans 9:21-22 to every sinner or non-Christian, as if they are creations that God does not value. But, then again, God actually does value the actual referents of Romans 9:21-22, the nation of Israel, for God will save it some day in the future.

So how can I be sure that God loves me? Because he wants to expand the number of saved people, and I assume that he includes me in that program.

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