Thursday, January 31, 2008

God, His Glory, and the Nations

In Joel 2:17, the Israelites appeal to God's reputation in their request for God to stop the plague of locusts. We see this motif elsewhere in the Bible. Perhaps the most prominent place is Exodus 32:11-12, in which Moses tells God not to destroy the Israelites because of what the nations might think. According to Moses, if God destroys Israel, then the nations will conclude that God was not powerful enough to bring them into the Promised Land. And God wants the nations to believe that he is powerful.

But why does God care so much about what the nations think? The typical C.S. Lewis response is that God magnifies himself before the nations so that they will want to have a relationship with him. That works with some prophets, but not all of them. The prophets with whom it works are Isaiah and Zechariah. Throughout the Book of Isaiah, there is the motif that all of the nations will worship the LORD at Israel's restoration (see Isaiah 2, 19, 66). Zechariah also presents the nations honoring God, some on account of force, and others because they are attracted (Zechariah 8:23; 14).

But Ezekiel and Joel seem to be rather xenophobic, by contrast. Throughout Ezekiel 38-39, for example, God says that the heathen will know that he is the LORD. But God is not magnifying himself to woo them into a relationship with him. Rather, they find out that he is the LORD right before the LORD destroys them. That's the last thought they have. So much for the relationship! And Joel 3:17 prophesies that no strangers will pass through Jerusalem after God's restoration of Israel. That seems to differ from Isaiah's picture of all the nations traveling to Zion to learn God's ways.

As I was thinking about God's concern for his reputation, my mind wandered onto what various Calvinists have said about the glory of God. Calvinists are really big on God's glory. I've often heard them say, "God doesn't act for our sakes, but for his glory." And there are biblical references in which God actually says that, specifically in Ezekiel (36:22, 32). But one question that I've asked myself is this: "If God wants to look good, then why does he do things that do not look good?" Let's take Calvinism, for instance. Calvinism says that God chooses to save only a few people, while he condemns the rest to burn in hell for eternity. As far as Calvinists are concerned, those who are not in the "elect" have no chance of ever being saved. That does not make God look good! It doesn't look all that fair, or loving, for that matter. But, of course, Calvinists will then tell us to just have faith. After all, that's what we're supposed to do with the parts of the Christian religion that don't make sense.

So I'm not entirely sure why God is so concerned about his reputation. Not all of the prophets say that he is seeking a relationship with the nations, plus even Christian movements that emphasize God's glory present him in a seemingly less-than-glorious fashion. And, on some level, they have a point in doing so, since God is not really in the PR business. He's not like Bill Clinton. He doesn't take a poll to see what the nations want a God to be before he decides to act. And, yet, for some reason, he does want to communicate to the nations his power, justice, and solidarity with Israel.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Prophets and Immediate Restoration

In the Book of Joel, the prophet addresses a serious problem in Israel: a plague of locusts is consuming the crops. Whether the locusts are literal insects or a symbol for a foreign invader, Joel exhorts his fellow Israelites to take action. Everyone in the nation, young and old, is to appear before God in a solemn assembly. The situation is so serious that brides and grooms must interrupt their weddings to attend. There are no grain and drink offerings, since the locusts have consumed the crops, but the Israelites can still reach God without such sacrifices. God is more concerned about their hearts anyway, so Joel tells them to mourn and fast before God in humble, heartfelt repentance.

At first, Joel expresses the possibility that God might turn from his anger and restore Israel's prosperity, but he is not absolutely certain. Then, one day, Joel gets a message: God has acknowledged the Israelites' repentance and will cease from his wrath. He will send them grain, wine, and oil, thwart the northern invaders, and ensure that the Israelites will never again be put to shame. Then, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh so that the sons and daughters of Israel shall prophesy.

Was Joel expecting such a dramatic restoration of Israel in his own lifetime? If he was conveying God's message of hope in response to plague of locusts that existed in his own day, then the answer seems to be "yes." But there is a problem with that. First of all, for Christians, many of the predictions of Joel 2 were fulfilled at Pentecost in the first century C.E., when God poured out his Spirit on the early church (see Acts 2). And, second, Joel affirms that the Israelites shall never again be put to shame. But the Israelites have continually experienced shame even after Joel's death. The Jews have endured persecution and humiliation from all sorts of people (e.g., medieval Christians, Nazis, Communists, etc.).

What Joel does is not exactly unique, for most of the prophets discuss Israel's ultimate restoration in light of the socio-political reality of their times. First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-35) predicts that God will use the Assyrians to execute his judgment upon his people; then, after the land of Israel has been cleansed, God will set up a kingdom of righteousness and peace. Jeremiah states that the Jews will only be exiled for seventy years; after that time, God will return the exiles, reconstitute the monarchy and priesthood, and establish a new covenant with Northern Israel and Judah. Jews and Christians have both projected these expectations onto the future. Traditional Jews say that God will one day send a Messiah who will set up a kingdom of peace, and Christians assert that this will take place at the second coming of Jesus Christ. The prophets, however, appear to have believed that such things would happen in their own day, or at least soon (since Jeremiah didn't live seventy years after the Babylonians took Judah).

And so there appears to be a theological problem, as far as traditional Jews and Christians are concerned: The prophets seem to have predicted that restoration was imminent, and it was not exactly. So were they false prophets? What are some ways to approach this difficult issue?

One way may be to say that God was speaking to Joel's situation in light of his overall plan. God planned to restore Israel far off into the future. His agenda was eventual restoration, and he had Joel share this with Israel to offer her hope. God's goal was to assure Israel that he still loved her and had plans for her as a nation, even though not all of them would be realized at that particular moment. This solution may have some merit, but I have difficulty believing that a prediction about something far off into the future would offer Israel hope right then and there. They were in an emergency situation, after all. They needed assurance about something immediate.

Another possibility is that prophecy is conditional. Maybe God planned to restore Israel, but she did not repent properly, so God delayed his plans. Interestingly, this seems to be the approach of certain biblical authors and redactors. Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) prophesied a dramatic restoration of Israel after she had left Babylon, yet that did not exactly occur. Then Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) came along and told Israel that she was sinning, and her sins were holding up God's program. That may be true, but I have a problem: A lot of the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah, Ezekiel) predict that God will make Israel righteous after her restoration. For them, the Israelites will no longer be habitually sinners, because God will make them habitually righteous. In this scenario, God will act to take care of Israel's sin problem, so how can Israel's sins hold up God's plan?

A third possibility that entered my mind was that Joel was predicting a locust plague for the far off future. After all, the Book of Daniel is set in the days of Babylon and Persia in the sixth century B.C.E., yet it speaks to a situation that existed in the second century B.C.E. Could Joel have been a book stored up for a later time? Perhaps, but I have a problem making that claim about all of the prophetic books. Isaiah, after all, talks about eschatological restoration in light of nations that were present in his own day (e.g., Assyria).

There may be more proposals. The above ones have their strengths, and possibly even some truth. Yet, they are not completely adequate. Perhaps the fact that the prophetic hope kept surviving despite continual disappointment attests to the steadfast faith of Jews and Christians. As they looked at the evil around them, they continually clung to God in the hope that he would set up his kingdom, one of righteousness and peace.

Is There Room in Christianity for Other Beliefs?

This is an article I wrote for Helium.com. It was an answer to a debate question, Is there room in Christianity for other beliefs? Those who participate have to answer "Yes" or "No," and I answered "Yes." Enjoy!
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Can Christians gain insight from other religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam? Or should they see Christianity as the only source of wisdom and guidance?

On a certain level, even the most fundamentalist of Christians form their beliefs with sources other than the Bible. If a fundamentalist wants to fix his car, then the Bible isn't going to help him that much. He needs a car manual.

"But a car manual doesn't relate to religion or how people should live," someone might say. Fair enough. But if the Bible is supposed to be the only source of wisdom and guidance, then why go to church? Why read Christian books? If one takes fundamentalist logic to its conclusion, then all one should have to do is sit at home and read the Bible. Why listen to the wisdom and life experiences of a pastor or other Christians, if the Bible is all that you need?

As a Christian, I do not believe that there are many paths to God. If another religion contradicts Christianity, then I go with Christianity, pure and simple. Otherwise, I wouldn't be a Christian, would I?

But there are things that people of other cultures have learned through their life experiences that they have communicated through their stories and religious traditions. The Taoists have observed that stressing out about life is not healthy and doesn't necessarily make things better. The Buddhists teach that life is mutable and that attachment ultimately leads to disappointment. Some of their answers can offer sound advice to Christians, since they are based on what's been observed to work (at least in the lives of some people). And, if Christians don't like the answers that other religions have given, then they can at least benefit from the questions that they raise.

Also, studying other cultures can help Western Christians understand the Bible from a different perspective. Western Christians tend to read the Bible in light of their own western mindset. Perhaps learning about the East can show them that their presuppositions are not the only ones on the face of the earth, and this can allow them to read the Bible in a whole new light. The Bible didn't emerge in America, after all, but in the Middle East.

For example, there are many evangelicals who see God as a buddy. Muslims wouldn't even dream of being so casual with God, since they view Allah as the sovereign ruler of the universe, meaning he deserves respect. I'm not saying that evangelicals should ditch their intimacy with God, but I do think that Islam can remind them of God's holiness and exalted status. And what Muslims can teach us is already in the Bible, only some Christians may have missed it because of their biases.

Another example relates to law and grace. A lot of evangelicals focus on God's grace and love, even as they downplay God's law. Judaism also believes that God is loving, but it holds that God expressed his love by giving Israel the Torah. Judaism can remind Christians that God respects humanity enough to give it responsibilities to fulfill. Again, what Judaism teaches is already in the Bible. It's in the Old Testament, as a matter of fact! But some Christians may have missed that because they read the Bible with their own cultural glasses. Getting outside of themselves may open up new things to them-from their own religious tradition.

The Christianity that many practice today has already been influenced by other cultures. For example, the church fathers drew on Greek thought as well as Scripture in their attempt to understand God. As long as drawing from other cultures doesn't make Christianity something other than Christianity, then I see nothing wrong with it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I've Met the Austins

I just finished Madeleine L'Engle's series on the Austin family. Here is my reaction to each of the books:

1. Meet the Austins (1960). There is a certain charm to this book, although nothing exciting really happens in it. I just liked hanging around the people. It's like watching Fiddler on the Roof, Keeping the Faith, or 7th Heaven. You simply like the characters, even though the plot has no explosions or major villains. There's something magical about being in the warmth of a family. One thing that I liked: There is a character named Maggie, whose father dies at the beginning of the book. She comes to live with the Austins and gets on everyone's nerves. Still, they eventually accept her. There have been times when I've gotten on people's nerves in my search for attention. And people can get on mine, too.

2. The Moon by Night (1963). I liked this book because it deals with theodicy, which asks how God can permit bad things to happen. Teenager Vicki Austin meets Zachary Gray, a young man with a bit of an ego problem. I first met him in A House Like a Lotus , and I didn't like him then. But, in The Moon by Night, I found out that he had heart problems due to rheumatic fever, so I felt sorry for him.

There were three things that I liked: First, in a paragraph about suffering, one of the characters says that bad things actually make life worth living. It also states that a sign of maturity is noticing that there is a lot that is beautiful in the world. I haven't reached that point yet, but I hope to someday.

Second, Zachary mocks the existence of God by asking Vicki why a loving God would allow Ann Frank to die. Vicki then has a discussion with Uncle Douglas, who calls himself the infidel of the family. I'm not entirely sure why, since much of what he says is the typical evangelical spiel on suffering. He points out that God gave us free will, and also that we can't see the big picture, in which God has a plan. But he expresses himself with a humility that I do not find in a lot of evangelical apologists. He simply gives Vicki something to contemplate rather than acting as if he has the definitive answer on theodicy. He also says that there are arguments against God's existence, but he believes because only God gives life meaning. Atheists will undoubtedly disagree with that statement, since many of them hold that life can indeed have meaning without a God. Personally, my reaction is mixed. If this short life is all there is, and there is no loving God looking out for us, then I can understand why some would consider life meaningless. I have problems with Christian apologetics, but I believe in Christianity because I hope it is true. On the other hand, if most are going to hell anyway (as conservative Christianity seems to teach), then life appears pointless for a lot of people, at least in my eyes.

Third, at the end of the book, Vicki gets injured after an earthquake and avalanche, and she is cold. She is initially angry with God, until she finally comes to accept his will. The weather then gets warmer. I've had similar experiences. I rant at God, and then I get so tired that I can no longer rant. After that, things begin to become better. I can feel God's presence and a strong sense of peace. Some time later, I go through another round of turbulence.

3. The Young Unicorns (1968). This book is a suspense novel, and it reminded me of a Scooby Doo mystery. But it has some theological lessons. In it, there is a device that makes people submissive, and a bishop uses it to make humanity better. Madeleine L'Engle dislikes this, for she believes in human free will. One of her characters, a rabbi, says that God shows that he values us by giving us demands, or commandments. God grants us responsibilities, and yet we follow them out of our own free will. In the end, the bishop turns out not to be a bishop, but rather the bishop's actor brother, who is using the device to gain power for himself. L'Engle's point appears to be that God is not a tyrant: He gives us commands, but he wants us to see the value of them and choose them freely.

4. A Ring of Endless Light (1980). L'Engle wrote this book long after The Young Unicorns, yet the family doesn't age that much. The theme of this book is affirming life in the face of death. Zachary attempts suicide, and Vicki's grandfather (whom we first encounter in Meet the Austins) is about to die. But Vicki finds solace with biology student Adam Eddington and his dolphins, with whom she develops a remarkable rapport. Vicki's grandfather, a minister, says that death encourages us to appreciate life, particularly our loved ones while they are still with us. That's a good point, but Vicki's grandfather is still a strange sort. He seems to question the doctrine of original sin, yet he calls humanity depraved because a group of people walked over a corpse with total apathy.

I read this book before The Moon by Night and The Young Unicorns. Here, I learn that Vicki is jealous of her beautiful sister Suzi. I identified with Vicki the first time I read that, but I got bored with her jealousy after reading about it in other books. I'm still glad that L'Engle mentioned it as often as she did, since it makes Vicki look real. It's just that I can tolerate only so much complaining about the same things (unless I'm the complainer, of course).

5. Troubling a Star (1994). L'Engle wrote this fourteen years after A Ring of Endless Light, and Vicki is still in her teens. What's weird is that she has a romantic relationship with Adam Eddington, a college student. The book is clean, so nothing inappropriate happens. But isn't Vicki a little too young for Adam?

I personally didn't care for this book. I didn't follow the plot that well, and it was kind of like another Scooby Doo mystery. But the book has information about penguins and Antarctica, which is where Vicki goes, so science buffs may like it. The book seems to have an environmental theme: all things in nature have a purpose outside of their usefulness to humans. So L'Engle doesn't like people exploiting nature for power. We also encounter Vespugia, the fictional South American country in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

So I definitely recommend these books, especially the first four. The Austins are nice people, and L'Engle teaches some valuable theological lessons through them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Common Ground

Barack Obama advertises himself as the candidate who can bring people together. A while back, Stephen aka Q commented under my post "Iowa" that Obama can end the political and cultural tensions that currently divide the country.

To be honest, I'm rather skeptical. First of all, as likable as Obama may be, he is a liberal, probably more so than Hillary. As an Illinois legislator, Obama opposed legislation that would protect babies who survive late-term abortions. This vote places him not only to the left of Hillary, but also the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL)!

Second, I doubt that people will relinquish their political and cultural preferences just because of Obama's charisma. I mean, seriously, folks. Do you expect me to become pro-abortion simply because Obama can give a good speech? I don't think that Obama can make everyone in America agree. That is an impossible task.

At the same time, wouldn't it be nice to have a leader who can find common ground with the opposing party, someone who doesn't make the perfect an enemy of the good with an "all or nothing" approach? There are some things in America that desperately need reform, and the two parties should stop playing politics, come together, and agree on ways to make the situation better.

Let's take health care as an example. Health care in America is very expensive (to say the least). There are people who crouch in fear at the possibility of them or their loved ones getting sick or injured, since the cost of treatment can wipe out their savings. And insurance premiums are also really high.

The Democrats and the Republicans disagree on what to do about this. The Democrats prefer a larger role for the federal government, whereas the Republicans look more to the private sector as a source for solutions. The Democrats side with the trial lawyers, whose lawsuits drive up the cost of health care. The Republicans, meanwhile, are friends with the HMOs and the insurance companies. I'm not naive enough to think that this will change anytime soon.

But, rather than limiting themselves to partisan bickering, why can't the two parties sit down together, find areas of agreement, and make the situation at least better than it currently is? Not perfect, but better. And I'm not advocating that they stop fighting over socialized medicine, since that is an important issue. I'm just saying that they should first pass what they agree will help the average American, and then go back to their partisan bickering.

And there is one thing on which Republicans and Democrats seem to agree: tax credits to help people pay for insurance. The Bush plan will give the American taxpayer a deduction of up to $15,000 for insurance. And Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both promote tax credits for insurance on their campaign web sites.

On one level, I think that this proposal is a band aid solution. The goal should be to bring the cost of health care down, not to help people pay for its high price. But, alas, that goal must remain only a dream, for both parties are too beholden to special interests to accomplish this. The Democrats resist tort reform, and the Republicans oppose the importation of cheap prescription drugs. And, as I read in Michael Tanner's Leviathan on the Right, Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House worked to restrict hospital competition.

But if something can be done to give Americans a break, and both parties can find some common ground on what that something is, then shouldn't they just do it? Can't both sides see that half a loaf is better than none at all?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Michael Tanner, Leviathan on the Right

I recently finished Michael Tanner's Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution (Cato, 2007). Tanner is the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Essentially, Tanner argues that the Republican Party has become a party of big government. It's not as bad as the Democrats, mind you, but it is still bad. Federal domestic expenditures increased under Republican leadership, and a lot of that was unrelated to homeland security. Moreover, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Fred Barnes, and other prominent conservatives have made explicit statements in favor of greater federal involvement in the domestic sphere. Although conservatives occasionally give lip service to limited government, Republican rhetoric and policy often point in the opposite direction. In the process, they contradict many of the founding fathers, who opposed the concentration of power into a single authority.

I learned a lot from the book, primarily because of its lucid presentation. I've always heard the term "neoconservative" tossed around, and (like many Americans) I mainly associated it with using war to solve international problems. But the neocons also uphold a clear domestic agenda, in which the federal government guides people to "correct" behavior (e.g., marriage, frugality, etc.), almost like a parent. And, according to former Chief of Staff Andy Card, Bush himself used that analogy! Neocons are interventionist in both federal and domestic policy, even though (to their credit) they were the ones who first drew national attention to the problems of welfare.

I never really understood why my Republican grandma disliked President Bush's prescription drug entitlement, until I read Tanner's description of it. According to Tanner, the beneficiary must pay the total drug costs between $2,250 and $3,600, the "doughnut hole." Anything above or below that range, however, is covered by Medicare. Tanner doesn't actually think that the benefit should cover the doughnut hole, however, since he perceives that entitlements are already getting out of control. Overall, he doesn't really even view the benefit as necessary, for he points out that a lot of people were already getting prescription drug coverage before its passage.

Tanner made some points about importing cheap prescription drugs that had never entered my mind (perhaps because I should do more reading). One argument against it is that American prescription drug companies do most of the research that creates groundbreaking drugs. If they were to compete against cheap, imported prescription drugs, however, then they wouldn't have as much money for research. According to Tanner, most of the world piggybacks on America's accomplishments in the area of pharmaceuticals.

Although I cheered Tanner's critiques of federal farm subsidies and earmarks, I found myself disagreeing with him on certain matters, particularly the right to life. Because Tanner is a libertarian rather than a social conservative, he wants the federal government to stay out of life issues (i.e., abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia). So he criticizes the FDA's opposition to certain abortion pills, along with the federal stand against assisted suicide in Oregon and the removal of Terry Schiavo from life support. But I believe that the government should protect life (preborn, born, elderly, sick), not just liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But I can also understand Tanner's problem with federal intervention in state affairs. Whenever I read about Bush trying to overturn California's tough auto emission standards, or the revolts of various states against No Child Left Behind or the Patriot Act, my thought is, "Whom should I be supporting here?" As a conservative, do I support the states defending their rights against gross federal intervention, or do I stand by my Republican President? The very definition of "conservative" is not cut-and-dry anymore.

What is really interesting is that Tanner actually sees his own philosophy as politically feasible. And he gave me food for thought on that topic. He cites polls in which most Americans respond that they want the government to spend less, even if that means fewer services, and he also mentions referenda in which the majority of voters rejected spending proposals. I see a little of what he is describing in Cincinnati. In about every election, Cincinnati votes on tax levies for various services, such as prisons, mental health facilities, and public education. And, surprisingly, many of these levies either barely pass or fail altogether. I remember watching the news on the night of the 2004 election, and voters in a Ohio city looked as if they were about to reject a new tax levy for schools (though not all of the votes were counted when I watched the story). The news anchors were beside themselves about what would happen to the schools. People would have to buy their own school supplies! There would be no more band or football team! Apparently, more and more voters are starting to believe that the government should tighten its own belt before it starts talking about more taxes.

And so Tanner's book is a worthwhile read. It discusses why government is not the answer to many domestic problems. It also attempts to show how Republicans lost their way, and how they can regain it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ron Paul and Education

Hello, everyone! The following is an article that I wrote for helium.com. On Helium, a variety of people can write articles with the same title. There are four under the title 2008 presidential election: Ron Paul's stance on education issues. The other articles have background information on Ron Paul's stance on education.

I don't really document the sources in this article, since I don't know how to put links to Internet sites on Helium. But I found a column by economist Walter Williams to be very helpful.

I also have reservations about some of what I wrote, though I created the article just a few minutes ago. For example, there is a part of me that would like to see abstinence-only sex education and Intelligent Design in all public schools throughout America. Isn't that the definition of a Bush conservative? Use the federal government to enforce conservative principles?

Anyway, hope you enjoy this!
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Like libertarians in general, Ron Paul raises some very poignant questions about American education. Does more government spending bring greater educational quality? Should the federal government play a significant role in education, or should it be solely a state and local affair? How can America keep schools accountable?

As far as government spending is concerned, big government doesn't necessarily mean a good education. According to research by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the District of Columbia ranks second in the amount spent per pupil, but it ranks last in test scores on the NAEP, SAT, and ACT. We can pay teachers more, build fancier school buildings, and create bigger football fields, but these things do not guarantee that students are learning.

But what about the student/teacher ratio? Doesn't having less students per teacher make for a better education? Not necessarily. New Jersey and Washington, D.C. have few students per teacher, yet their educational performance is not the best in the country (to say the least). And Japan actually prefers larger classroom sizes, but it is outperforming the United States.

Does the federal government have a role to play in education? It certainly has an interest, for America needs an educated work force. So, on one level, education is a national concern. Many who see education as solely a state or local affair argue that students in one area may not have the same educational needs as students in another area. A rural community would prepare students for different kinds of work than would an urban one, for example. But not all students are going to stay in the city or small town in which they grew up, so their education needs to prepare them for work throughout the country. An education in Arlington, Minnesota (which doesn't exist) should prepare a person for some of the same tasks as an education in New York, New York. That's why there are supporters of national educational standards.

At the same time, one should take into the consideration the diversity of the United States. A small town in Kansas has a different ideology compared to a big city in California. Some areas want abstinence in public school sex education; others prefer a focus on contraception. Some are open to evolution; others deem it an offensive attack on faith. For the federal government to force the same culture on all public schools throughout the country is rank authoritarianism, plain and simple.

And while education is a national concern, states should be able to experiment with different approaches and compete with one another for educational success, rather than being forced into the same federal mold. Regarding educational standards, I would venture to say that the vast majority of states have the same basic goals: reading, writing, and arithmetic. So we don't have to worry about schools in a small town having an agenda that's vastly different from that of a big city, at least not in the subjects that truly matter.

As far as accountability goes, the best approach is school choice, either through tax credits or (for the poor) vouchers. No Child Left Behind has merit in the sense that it at least makes public schools accountable for once, rather than throwing more money at a failing system. The problem is that it is rather rigid and inflexible. A possible solution is to make schools directly accountable to parents and students, not the federal government. Many parents want their kids to attend good schools, and students would like a good education because it is a gateway to a brighter future. Why not let them grade a a school (public, private, or charter) on the quality of education that it provides?

While some might argue that a voucher does not cover all of the cost of most private schools' tuition, the competition that school choice fosters can bring down the cost of private education. "But what about the students who can't get into a good private school?" someone might ask. Well, maybe the public schools can focus more on them after other students leave for the private schools. Plus, if there is enough demand for schools that serve special needs students, then there is a good chance that such schools will emerge.

So Ron Paul has some good points on education. More government spending is not the answer, education should be handled by states and local governments, and parents should have a greater choice (though, unlike Ron Paul, I'm open to vouchers).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Tired

I'm tired right now for some reason. I don't feel that I did that much this week. Or maybe I did and I don't realize it. I try to write in my blog everyday. Why? I don't know. Often, there is an inner compulsion. I just have something to say, and so I say it. I'm also using some of my blog entries as articles. Hopefully, I can make some money as a freelance writer. I'll have to see.

Today, I'm not going to focus so much on phrasing everything absolutely correctly or making the best argument that I can possibly make. My mind needs a rest. But I would like to learn to write when I'm tired, which is why I'm practicing that right now. I want to get to the point where I can work throughout the day, come home, and still find the energy to write.

I've been watching some good 7th Heaven episodes the last couple of days. They're on the Hallmark Channel. I think I'm in the second season. On one episode, Reverend Eric Camden's dad, Colonel John Camden (played by Peter Graves), flew to the Camdens' house in California all the way from New York just to help out. He treated it as a mission. Usually, his relationship with his son's family is rather strained, but it warmed up to him a lot more in this episode, even as he warmed up to it. I liked Colonel Camden from the first episode that he was on. He came across as gruff, but there was a friendly side to him as well. He called Nixon a great man for bombing Cambodia, which was helping the Viet Cong. But he also told Lucy (Eric's middle daughter) that he likes his wife because she's brainy. So he's an avid Nixonite who likes independent-minded women. Interesting person!

The one on after that was about the church treasurer, who took $2,500 from the church fund to help his autistic son. This character has been on before. He always came across as strictly a dollars-and-cents sort of guy. At the beginning of this episode, he was trying to convince Reverend Camden to drop the Wednesday night service, since it didn't draw a lot of people and cost money. Eric didn't want to drop it because there was something special about it. The few people who came had a sort of bond. At the end of the episode, after the treasurer shared with Eric that he was trying to support a son with autism, the treasurer himself started to attend the Wednesday night service. Why's this touch me? I don't know. Something appeals to me about a small close-knit community that comes together to be spiritually fed, and someone getting to the point where he participates in the magic of all that.

I was slightly disappointed with this episode, however. Throughout this season, there's been a teacher who has helped Mary (the oldest daughter) recover from her injury so that she can play basketball again. He helped train Olympic champions. The problem is that he's somewhat hard on Matt (the oldest son) in English class. But he always struck me as tough but fair. He tries to get students to try their best. Well, at the end of the episode, he was acting inappropriately toward Mary. That's sad. It seemed so out of character.

The one on today had a good scene. Annie (the pastor's wife) was going to a clothing shop to return her daughter's damaged sweater, but the owner wouldn't accept it because Annie didn't have a receipt. Annie then gave an impassioned speech that asked where customer service went. And the owner in turn gave an equally impassioned speech about how there are a lot of shoplifters and people who "return" things they didn't actually buy. As a result, her insurance goes up. Well, the owner's customers left in fear after hearing her speech, and Annie felt bad. She offered to buy the owner a cup of coffee, and the owner accepted. The two got to understand one another a lot better.

There was another good one a few days ago. Simon (the youngest son) noticed that a old woman whom Eric and he were visiting had a tattooed number on her arm. At home, Eric told Simon about the Holocaust. The old woman was very reluctant to share her horrible experiences, except with other Holocaust survivors who could understand her better. Well, Simon is looking for a project for his history class, and a kid in his class says that the gas camps did not exist. So Simon's teacher encourages him to give a presentation on the Holocaust. In one of the scenes, the old woman is watching the news and is saddened by all the violence and the hatred that she sees. She agrees to tell Simon's class about her experiences in Auschwitz. The kids' parents are in the class for parents' day. Her story moves everyone, even the Holocaust-denying father of that one kid. Why did this episode move me? The old woman preferred to keep to herself and people who understood her, but she felt that she had to do something about the hate that was in her world. And so she told her story. And I was amazed that the story of a meek old lady could soften the heart of even a Holocaust revisionist. But, then again, how could it not?

So I'll print this post, but I don't feel like rereading or editing it. I'll see you tomorrow!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Christine Rosen and Oracular Adults

I just finished a book entitled My Fundamentalist Education, by Christine Rosen. I was in the library, I saw it, and I grabbed it, or, rather, it grabbed me. The book is primarily about Christine Rosen's fundamentalist education at Keswick Christian School, but she also talks a lot about the sites of St. Petersburg and her radical Pentecostal mother (or "biomom," as she calls her).

The Washington Post Book World named My Fundamentalist Education one of the best non-fiction books of 2006. I initially thought that this was going a little too far, even though I must admit that I don't know what other non-fiction books were out there in 2006. I just thought (at least at first) that her book didn't communicate anything that is profoundly new. I already realized that there are fundamentalists who think that the earth is 6,000 years old, encourage evangelism to non-Christians, and expect a coming Antichrist to rule the world near the end of time. And then, suddenly, her book started to provoke some interesting reflections.

Specifically, the book caused me to reflect about which adults I trusted when I was a child. As a young girl, Christine Rosen heard conflicting ideas from the adults in her life. At a summer science center, she learned about evolution and the universe being millions of years old. At school, her teachers interpreted Genesis 1 to mean that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Her school and her mother told her to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with non-Christians. Her dad and step-mother, on the other hand, promoted religious pluralism. And some in her extended family wanted nothing to do with church.

I've heard some say that adults are oracular in the eyes of young children, meaning that kids look to their elders as authoritative. I wouldn't accept this claim as an absolute, but I do think that it has some merit. Kids just beginning to learn about the world around them tend to trust those who are older than they are. But what if the adults contradict each other? Which oracle do they believe then?

Christine Rosen tended to trust her school, at least when she was younger, since she abandoned her fundamentalism once she became an adult. As a child, for example, she continued to proselytize despite her dad and step-mom's rejection of fundamentalism. Why did she side with her school? My impression from her book is that her dad and step-mom were "hands-off" sorts of parents who weren't rigorously committed to teaching their children a specific ideology. Her school, by contrast, had her memorize Bible verses and actually told her what to believe. Her response to the creation/evolution controversy was more complex, however, for there she tried to find a way to believe that both were correct. In that case, she wanted to accept both oracles (the science center and the Christian school).

Unlike Rosen, I mostly sided with my parents over my school, at least up to the fifth grade (when I became a rebel and questioned both of them). My situation was different from Rosen's in that my parents were fundamentalist whereas my school was secular (at least for the Bible belt). To their credit, my parents were actively engaged with their kids. They took seriously the biblical command to teach their children while they are sitting down, standing up, and walking about the gates (or, in our case, the fence). And they clearly told me that the majority viewpoint is not always the correct one. In general, my family was rather different from everyone else in our small town. As devotees of a Worldwide Church of God offshoot, we went to church on Saturday rather than Sunday. We didn't keep Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. Every year, I took off school for a whole week to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. And, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, I brought these bumpy crackers to school. And I believed my parents when they told me that we were following God's will. They showed me the relevant Bible passages, after all.

And my parents also emphasized that my teachers are not always right. We should respect and obey our teachers, yes, but what our teachers told us was not necessarily the unvarnished truth. One time, a teacher of mine referred to human beings as animals, and I told my mom about it when I came home. My mom replied that people are not animals but are special because they were made in God's image. She also told me stories about when she was a kid and an evolutionist teacher tried to force his ideas down the students' throats. And I believed my mom. My parents usually made a lot of sense when they discussed ideas with me.

Right now, I agree with my parents on some things, but I also disagree with them. And, interestingly enough, my parents don't even believe everything that they accepted when I was a child. People change. But Christine Rosen made me think back to when I was little, as I asked myself what oracular adults I followed at that time and why.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bush Lied?

The Associated Press has an article today entitled Study: Bush, aides 'propagated' false information about Iraq. According to the article, the Center for Public Integrity recently released a study that found "935 false statements by eight top administration officials that mentioned Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, or links to Al-Qaeda, on at least 532 separate occasions."

Apparently, the CPI is trying to argue that Bush deliberately lied, for it said in a statement that its study calls into question "the repeated assertions of Bush administration officials that they were merely the unwitting victims of bad intelligence." The study maintains that there was intelligence in 2002 that contradicted the Bush Administration's claims. Although Cheney asserted in that year that Iraq unequivocally had weapons of mass destruction, former CIA chief George Tenet states that the Vice-President's statement exceeded the CIA's assessments at the time. And a 2002 assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which Tenet confirmed, found an absence of any "compelling evidence demonstrating direct cooperation between the government of Iraq and Al-Qaeda."

I have three points.

First of all, why is this news? We've heard this tape before. Critics of President Bush have long chanted the mantra that "Bush lied, people died." The slogan has been on bumper stickers since at least 2004.

Second, the Center for Public Integrity is not exactly an unbiased source, for it receives money from leftists such as George Soros and Bill Moyers (see this documented article). I'm not saying that its claims should be ignored, anymore than one should disregard the arguments of neoconservative publications like Commentary and The Weekly Standard. My problem is that the Associated Press is presenting this study as if it's the product of a non-partisan group, which is hardly the case. The study is from a leftist group repeating the typical leftist line. There is nothing newsworthy about that.

Third, the study seems to rely a lot on the words of George Tenet. Okay. Allow me to do the same. An article in the April 27, 2007 New York Times states the following about Tenet on WMDs:

"Mr. Tenet takes blame for the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons programs, calling the episode 'one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure.' He expresses regret that the document was not more nuanced, but says there was no doubt in his mind at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed unconventional weapons. 'In retrospect, we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible,' he writes." (emphasis mine).

Bush doesn't sound like a liar to me, at least not in Tenet's account. According to Tenet, there was intelligence in 2002 claiming that Iraq had WMDs. And, in his recollection, there was no doubt in his mind that Saddam Hussein possessed something dangerous. Retrospectively, as far as Tenet is concerned, any other idea appeared implausible at the time. Maybe that was why so many prominent Democrats voted to go to war.

Regarding links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, in an October 7, 2002 letter to Senator Bob Graham of the Intelligence Committee, Tenet affirms the following:

"Our understanding of the relationship between Iraq and al-Qa'ida is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability. Some of the information we have received comes from detainees, including some of high rank. We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa'ida going back a decade. Credible information indicates that Iraq and al-Qa'ida have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qa'ida members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have credible reporting that al-Qa'ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qa'ida members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs. Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al-Qa'ida, suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action" (see C.I.A. Letter to Senate on Baghdad's Intentions).

So Tenet thought that there was a working relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. And we know Bush was lying from what, again?

So Bush was not deliberately lying. On the issue of WMDs, he was misinformed. That doesn't mean that he was totally wrong, since there existed a strong possibility that Saddam was trying to create weapons of mass destruction. Why else did he go to Niger for help? Also, although the 9/11 Commission Report presents the relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda as somewhat stormy, it does offer examples of the two working together and seeking to establish a stronger bond (see The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 61, 66). So the Center for Public Integrity is wrong to depict Bush's claims as thoroughly false, just because they contradict its selective, one-sided interpretation of the past.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reactions to Last Night's Debate

I try to watch as many Presidential debates as I can. That's one way for me to learn what's going on in the world. But when I was looking at the channel guide and saw that the South Carolina Democratic debate would be three hours long, I thought, "Oh brother. Will I be able to take it?"

Fortunately, the debate ended up being only two hours, and the time went by pretty fast. I laughed out loud when Hillary and Obama were trading insults. I get a strong sense of inner satisfaction when the Clintons are not treated like royalty, but (oddly enough) I also admire Hillary's talent for finding dirt on people. She's probably a veteran at this. Remember the dirt that was suddenly found on Bill's opponents and victims? Also, not a whole lot seems to phase her (at least not in public). The crowd at the debate was obviously on Obama's side, and Hillary got booed on at least one occasion. But she kept her cool, showed no hint of shock or surprise, and ploughed through her point.

Overall, I thought that Obama answered Hillary's charges rather well, except when he talked about credit card debt. According to Hillary, Obama voted against an amendment that would have prohibited credit card companies from charging over 30 per cent interest. Obama stumbled through his response, saying that he wanted the limit to be lower than 30 per cent and that the bill didn't go through the banking committee, so he voted "no." In the end, Obama didn't come out on top in that exchange. As Hillary and Edwards pointed out, Obama's vote ended up leaving no limit on credit card interest at all. So much for his good intentions!

I found myself yelling at Edwards more than once. He just kept getting on my nerves! First, he was asking Obama why he voted "present" 100 times when he was in the Illinois legislature, rather than a simple "yes" or "no." My response to Edwards was, "Well, at least he showed up for his job! Wasn't your nickname 'Senator Gone'?" Second, Edwards was bragging about how he receives no money from lobbyists or special interests, in contrast to the other candidates. My thought was, "Bull! You get millions from trial lawyers. Get off your self-righteous high horse!"

Fortunately, Hillary made my point for me, prompting me to cheer, "Hit him hard, Hillary! I don't like you, but you're right on that one!" But I ended up in disappointment. Edwards was going through his usual spiel about how trial lawyers are good because they help the little guy ("By driving up health care costs?" I asked), and Hillary didn't respond.

That's when a latent thought of mine became explicit: I can't wait until one of these candidates goes against a Republican. I just can't stand watching a debate in which all three of the candidates agree on the same liberal presuppositions. I'll keep watching them because I can learn something, but seeing the Democratic debates is like a lot of academic experiences I have had: the liberal party line is just assumed. The Republican debates are not so boring. At least they have Ron Paul to stir the pot! But all three of the Democrats just assume that Reagan was a bad President, despite the end of the Cold War and the jobs his economic policies produced. And Hillary couldn't respond to Edwards by saying how trial lawyers are greedy and contribute to high health care costs, since only Republicans say those sorts of things. Plus, trial lawyers are her potential constituency (after Edwards gets out of the race).

I would love to see Hillary or Obama go against someone like Romney, who is good at attacking people and seems to have an answer for everything (or at least he looks like he does). Or Huckabee would make a good opponent. Imagine Hillary attacking mild-mannered, likable Mike Huckabee, who then responds with a smooth, articulate defense (hopefully). Who would look like "part of the problem in Washington" then?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day 2008

Growing up in rural Indiana, I didn't always hear positive things about Martin Luther King, Jr. If memory serves me correctly, I don't even think we got the day off every single year. But he has managed to confront me throughout my life, and this attests to the force of his personality, even after his death.

When I was a kid, I was getting my hair cut on Martin Luther King Day. The adults there (who were all white) were discussing him and racial issues in general. I remember various points of the conversation, but the part that sticks out to me most is a comment made by a man who was probably in his 60's: "Martin Luther King's 'dream' was one race."

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I read various things by and about Dr. King. In the fifth grade, I read a biography on King for young people, and it was essentially a hagiography. The book had King's "I have a dream" speech in the back, and I learned that his dream was not one race (though I still hadn't warmed up to the figure). I also read right-wing literature, which characterized King as a radical who cheated on his wife and had Communists on his staff. Such literature almost always had the same photo of King sitting in this training school, which the authors identified as Communist (see Martin Luther King Jr. EXPOSED!).

I suppose that my general view on King as a child and a young adult was rather negative. I remember this social studies workbook that my third grade class had, and I was thumbing through it when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher (maybe that was some ADD at work!). I saw this one exercise in which students were to read a statement and determine if it described George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King. I thought that the assignment was propaganda (or whatever I as a third grader called it). Certainly King was not in the same category as those great men!

Years later, when I was in high school, my mom bought a book of King's sermons entitled The Strength to Love. I think I initially read the book to prove that King was a Communist, since the book included a sermon that was explicitly about Communism. Much to my surprise, the book had a certain charm to it. I liked the way that King tied the experiences of African-Americans to the stories of the Bible. I admired him for using the Sermon on the Mount as a program for the Civil Rights Movement, for he said that African-Americans should love their white oppressors, not hate them. I found him to be a person of great faith. Here was a man who believed that prayer got results, and he drew on God's strength to get through situations that would challenge the strongest human being (as when an anonymous caller threatened to blow up his house). And the book wasn't entirely about race, for King offered his thoughts on theological issues like Calvinism and predestination. The book was a combination of folksy appeals to Bible stories, anecdotes, testimonies, and theological musings. I loved it!

But what did the book teach me about King and Communism? Well, his sermon was not exactly pro-Communist, for he criticized Communism for being atheistic and totalitarian. At the same time, he advocated a rather leftist approach to Communist countries, as when he supported the inclusion of Red China in the United Nations. So he didn't appear to be a Communist, but I still disagreed with his positions on foreign policy.

That brings me to my next point: I don't feel that I have to agree with everything Martin Luther King said and did to admire him. And I get sick of the way that both the Left and the Right appeal to him for their political purposes, as if I'm supposed to believe something only on the strength of Martin Luther King's beliefs. Let me first tackle the Left. When I was at DePauw University, African-American author Michael Eric Dyson came to speak to us about Martin Luther King, and the school forced all of us to attend his lecture. Well, after sitting through his unfair criticisms of Newt Gingrich and other conservative figures, I heard him finally come to the topic of King. Essentially, he argued that the portrayals of King we saw in the media (he mentioned McDonald's ads) are highly sanitized. For him, the real King was someone who would shock modern American society. King supported bringing America towards socialism, and he advocated a tactic known as "aggressive non-violence."

My response was (and is), "So what if he did?" Am I supposed to become a socialist just because Martin Luther King was? I admire King because he championed racial equality on Christian grounds, not because of his socialism.

This brings me to the Right. I've often heard conservatives say, "King would turn over in his grave if he encountered current affirmative action policies! He believed that people should be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin. If he were alive today, he would definitely oppose racial quotas." I seriously doubt that claim. Affirmative action began to exist in the 1960's, and (as far as I know) King did not criticize it. I bet that King would be a liberal on a lot of issues. During the last MLK day, I saw an African-American pastor say on television (with a smirking President Bush sitting behind him), "King wouldn't support going to war over non-existent weapons of mass destruction." He's probably right! King called America an imperialistic power during the Vietnam War (ignoring the Communist imperialism that was engulfing the world). The guy was a liberal. At the same time, like a lot of African-Americans, King possibly would have been a conservative on certain social and cultural issues, such as gay marriage. But that was an unresolved debate between King's wife and daughter (see MPR: What would Martin Luther King do?).

So where do I stand today on Martin Luther King? I don't care for his womanizing, and I disagree with several of his radical leftist positions. But I have to respect and admire him, and not because some sanctimonious politically correct gurus tell me to do so. Here was a man who courageously stood for racial justice, and he did so promoting Christian love rather than hatred. He endured threats, intimidation, hatred, and jail, and he even gave his own life for what he believed was right (for he knew in 1968 that he was about to die). And he did these things when he was my age. That in itself is a sobering, challenging thought.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kill It! Kill It!

Several years ago, I was reading the Book of Joshua for my daily quiet time. Like a lot of Christians (from Origen to Chuck Missler), I interpreted the Conquest in light of spiritual warfare, which is the Christian's battle against demons, sin, and temptation. In Joshua, God commanded the Israelites to kill every last Canaanite--man, woman, and child. The goal of this drastic measure was to prevent the Canaanites from becoming a spiritual snare to them down the road. Similarly, we as Christians are to put to death the deeds of the flesh, or sins, that can become a snare to us (Romans 8:13).

And so I set out to kill my sins. I would look upon my sin the same way that an Israelite in the time of Joshua regarded a Canaanite: as a cancer to be removed. Whenever I had a thought of bitterness, I would say to myself, "Kill it! Kill it!" The same went for lustful thoughts.

But it didn't work for me. For one, I almost had to say "Kill it! Kill it!" every waking hour of the day, since my bitter thoughts and feelings kept coming back. And, second, I just decided to give in to my pleasurable fantasies. I couldn't fight biology, after all!

This whole struggle illustrates a difference between certain versions of Christianity and secular therapy. While many Christians would tell me that I should try to kill my sins, secular therapy would ask me why I am angry. As far as lust is concerned, it would remark that I'm only human.

Some Christians would be open to the secular therapeutic approach, while others would not. The ones who are open to it often point to David in the Book of Psalms, since there he was honest with God about what made him angry. Many of the Psalms are David's (or whoever's) vents before God. Like a person in therapy, he clearly identifies why he is mad and lets it all out. Those who are not as open to psychology would give different kinds of advice, depending on whether the person embraces an active or a passive approach to sanctification. The former would say, "Your anger is a sign of your old sinful nature, which is dead. You must put to death your anger." The latter, by contrast, would respond, "Actually, you don't have to put to death your anger. Just trust God to remove it whenever he chooses. Let go and let God!"

As I was reading and meditating upon Joshua 11 for my weekly quiet time, the complexity of the Book of Joshua struck me. Critical scholars have argued that different views on the Conquest exist in Joshua and Judges. Sometimes, the Book of Joshua acts as if the Conquest occurred in one fell swoop. At other times, it presents it as a slow, arduous process (Joshua 11:18). Joshua 11:16-17 says that Joshua conquered all of the land of Canaan, whereas Joshua 13 lists exceptions to the Conquest. Joshua 11:21 states that Joshua removed the Anakim from Hebron, but Joshua 14 presents Caleb as doing that act. Joshua 11 is about Joshua killing Jabin the king of Hazor, yet there is a Jabin in Hazor in Judges 4. Either there are different traditions about the same Jabin, or there was a Jabin II who recaptured Hazor for the Canaanites. And the last verse of Joshua 11 affirms that the land had rest from war after the Israelites had killed all the Canaanites, and, yet, the Canaanites are still giving the Israelites problems in the Book of Judges.

Some Christians have actually done something homiletical with this tension. John MacArthur argues in The Vanishing Conscience that Christians should be continually vigilant against sin. They can kill a sin, but they must make sure that it doesn't come back. And, like the Canaanites, those sins can be pretty persistent! Fighting against sin can be a continual battle. But if that is the case, can I ever have rest from my inner war?

On some level, the battle is already won. In Joshua 11:6, God promises Joshua that he will defeat the Canaanites the very next day. So, technically, I can rest assured that God will at some point grant me victory over my sins. According to Romans 6, I am already dead to sin because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, so the victory is already mine. But I am not passive in the entire process, for I am an active participant.

The thing is that killing a sin for me may not always involve the "Kill it! Kill it!" approach. Granted, there are times when I should simply stop thinking a bitter thought. "Get thee hence, bitter thought!" can sometimes work, as can continual prayer through my inner battles. But I often feel that such exercises only remove the surface of the plant, not the root, since the same bitterness keeps coming back. And, to be honest, I don't know how to totally get rid of the root. My approach at the present time is to try to live with my bitterness, but to tame it by means of continual prayer throughout the day. The Israelites managed to subjugate the Canaanites, after all, even though they couldn't destroy all of them.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jesus' Nature

At church this last Sunday, the priest once more discussed the nature of Jesus. According to him, Jesus did not find out that he was God at any particular point in his life; rather, he always knew about his divinity, even as a baby, for being God implies the possession of omniscience. He characterized the view that Jesus learned about his divinity as an old heresy. As far as the priest was concerned, Jesus didn't need to learn anything, for he knew everything throughout his life.

The priest tried to explain away the biblical passages in which Jesus seems to learn. According to him, when Jesus was asking questions in the temple (Luke 2:46), he wasn't seeking information that he did not know. Rather, in typical Socratic fashion, he was asking questions to make the doctors think. Like the rabbis, Jesus sat while his pupils (in this case, the doctors) stood. For the priest, when Luke 2:52 says that Jesus grew in wisdom, that doesn't mean that he was learning new things. Rather, it indicates that people were teaching him as he submitted to their tutelage. The priest asserted that Jesus already knew how to make a table, but he let Joseph teach him and did things Joseph's way out of respect for his father.

The priest has a point about Jesus in the temple. I can envision Jesus asking questions to learn more about the Bible, but I can also understand if one would have a problem with Jesus "learning" from the religious establishment. I personally think that the rabbis taught some good things, but the Gospels often present the scribes, Pharisees, and priests as the bad guys. Why would Jesus want to learn their doctrine as he went about his Father's business? Maybe he sought to understand the doctrine of his opponents so he could refute it when he grew up.

The priest's second point is quite a stretch, in my opinion. Luke 2:52 doesn't merely state that Jesus let people teach him. It affirms that Jesus grew in wisdom. If he grew in wisdom, then his understanding was not always perfect, otherwise there would have been no need for growth.

There is a view that Jesus emptied himself of several divine attributes when he became a human. Philippians 2:7 says that he ekenosen, or emptied himself. People who believe like the priest interpret the verse to mean that Jesus became a person of no reputation, not that he lost his divine attributes. But there are other passages that affirm that Jesus did his miraculous works through his Father, not his own ability (John 5:19, 30; 8:28; Acts 2:22). In becoming a man, Jesus made himself utterly dependent on God for his wisdom and power.

Or at least this is one view in the New Testament. Many scholars contend that Matthew tries to make Jesus appear more divine in his telling of one of the stories. In Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 8:43-48, the woman with an issue of blood touches Jesus' garment, prompting Jesus to inquire, "Who touched me?" Jesus does not ask this question in Matthew's version (Matthew 9:20-22). Perhaps Matthew was thinking, "Jesus wouldn't ask this. He already knew who touched him. He was God, after all!" Or (for more conservative believers) he could have thought, "Look, Mark and Luke were just presenting Jesus as asking a rhetorical question. He wasn't seeking new information! But, to avoid any confusion, I'll just omit the question in my version. I want to make clear that Jesus was God."

Sometimes, the same book can present different Christologies. As we saw above, there are passages in John's Gospel in which Jesus is utterly dependent on the Father for wisdom and power. At the same time, John 2:19 says that Jesus was responsible for his own resurrection, for it states that Jesus will raise his own body after three days. This is in contrast with Paul, who affirms that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:24). Maybe one can reconcile the two ideas by saying that God gave Jesus the power to resurrect himself.

The New Testament itself contains a complex approach to Christology, so I'm reluctant to dismiss someone as a heretic just because he doesn't phrase the issue in a certain way. And there are people from all sorts of perspectives who toss around the label of "heretic." Some say that Jesus was fully human, so he had sexual desires and lacked omniscience as a child. For them, any other view of Jesus is docetism, the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human but really wasn't (since he was fully divine). Personally, I trust the priest more than Protestant renegades on what the church fathers considered orthodox. At the same time, I don't support explaining away biblical passages to make them conform to the "orthodox" perspective. I embrace the Bible in all its complexity, as I try to learn from its different facets and nuances.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Religion and the Rain Dance

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there is an emphasis on agriculture. Obey God, and he will send you rain and crops; disobey, and you will experience drought and famine. Several Jewish holidays (e.g., Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.) center around agriculture, specifically the Israelites' desire for God to send rain, which is so necessary for the production of food. In the Elijah story, the main question revolves around who could bless the Israelites with rain: the storm god Baal (boo!) or the LORD God of Israel (horray!).

I detect that there are many in modern times who look down on this sort of religion. I don't have any quotes to back my claim up, but it's just a feeling that I have, based upon the various books, articles, and lectures I've encountered over the years. For such moderns, the Israelites were a rag-tag gang of primitive tribespeople who feared the unpredictable natural world. They worshipped their god to give themselves a sense of security, predictability, and control in a world that made sense. They needed rain to survive, so they appealed to their tribal god to control the weather for their benefit. Whenever drought came, they didn't feel hopeless, for they concluded that God was withholding rain because of their sin. And there was a solution: If they repented, then God would send the rain. The Israelites were not alone in holding to this kind of religion, for pagans were also concerned about the agricultural cycle, as were Native Americans, who had special rain dances to bring about a bountiful harvest.

For a lot of moderns, such a religion sounds superstitious and un-scientific. It is grounded in fear of the unknown, plus modern science has supposedly shown that prayers and rain dances have no effect on the weather, which is random (except for global warming, which many scientists now blame on humans). Some of the people who make such points are atheists, while others are Christians or Jews who treat the Israelite preoccupation with rain as a primitive and immature stage of the Jewish religion, in contrast with the ethical sensitivity that developed later.

Such moderns take for granted the abundance of food in the Western world. They act as if all the food they eat originated in their local supermarket, when actually there was an entire agricultural process that went into its production. We depend on rain just as much as our "primitive" ancestors.

At the same time, I can see the point that religion should be about more than satisfying our physical needs. Deuteronomy 8:3 says that man does not live on bread alone. We shouldn't just be good so that God will give us food instead of drought. We should also have an appreciation of righteousness, one that recognizes its inherent beauty.

But people are concerned about life's necessities, which is why they are included in most religions. What puzzles me, however, is that they don't seem to be a major feature of eastern religions. I'll admit that I'm not an expert on Buddhism and Taoism, but their emphasis seems to be on psychological outlook, not the provision of basic needs. The Buddhists encourage detachment from the world so that people won't suffer so much, and Taoists focus on going through life with a relaxed attitude. I don't remember reading or hearing anything about them appealing to a deity for rain or other necessities. Theravada Buddhists don't even believe in a deity!

Maybe they do touch on this issue in some way and I've missed it. Or perhaps they don't and there is a reason. They may be elites who are detached from agricultural production. Possibly their adherents gravitate towards isolated communities that take for granted the food that they eat. These are just guesses. A religion that focuses on something other than day-to-day survival may seem sophisticated and mature, but is it out of touch with the lives of most people?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Filling in Some Economic Gaps

I'm not much of an economist. This week, I've been looking at articles about whether or not government spending and the deficit hurt the economy. To be honest, I didn't understand them that much. A lot of the articles (even the popular ones) seem to assume that everybody has a common-sense, "big picture" understanding of how the economy works, and that's not exactly true with me. My Asperger's tends to make me focus on the trees rather than the forest, and, when authors leave the trees out, then I am lost. Of course, I'm not saying that having Asperger's and being an economist are irreconcilable. There is a Nobel prize-winning economist who has the syndrome, after all.

I spend time (probably more than I should) on a Christian dating site, which has a variety of forums. I've learned a lot from it. From the Bible Study and Theology Forum, I've read the perspectives of different denominations. I can now tell you (roughly speaking) the various viewpoints on the rapture and the justifications given for each of them. As I said yesterday, the Prayer Form gives me clear opportunities to pray for people, something that church doesn't really do for me (at least not as well).

Anyway, as I was struggling with the economics articles, I posted a question on the News and Current Events Forum. I asked why the budget deficit is bad for the economy. I told all the potential responders to expect some obvious questions from yours truly.

Some of the replies did not make sense to me because they were overly abstract and used technical economic terms. But some of them did make sense. Here's what I learned:

The deficit is bad for this reason: when the government borrows money, it is leaving less money for investment and purchases in the private sector. Incidentally, this is also true when the government spends more money. There is only so much money to go around. If more is in the government's hands (through taxes, the deficit, and government spending), then less is in the possession of the private sector. When the Federal Reserve prints more money to address this problem, the result is inflation, as Ron Paul has repeatedly said. Why? Because when businesses know that more money is out there, they will raise their prices to get more of it.

The best thing for the economy is for more money to be in the private sector, not the government. Why? One reason that comes to my mind is that the government depends on the private sector. The government gets money through taxes. It is not self-supporting, but parasitic.

Often, the Democratic solution to unemployment (going back to FDR) is for the government to create more jobs. But the money for those jobs will have to come from the private sector, through taxes or borrowing. The private sector, by contrast, is not exactly parasitic, since people pay their own money to receive a service, resulting in jobs. Now that is a self-supporting system! The company gets paid, the person receives a service, and jobs are created through the entire process. There's no ripping off of another sector to create jobs. Everyone's happy, and, when there is unhappiness, people can shop elsewhere (if the government doesn't inhibit competition). Why not stimulate the creation of jobs in the private sector rather than creating more parasitic jobs for the government?

The same applies to all this push for federally-funded energy alternatives. Sure, that will create jobs, but the jobs would be parasitic because they'd need the support of the government. The support won't be coming from the consumer, for there's not a great deal of demand for alternative energy right now (since people can use oil). If there were, then the private sector would be investing in it.

Some may argue that government jobs are not parasitic because they create services (e.g., roads, schools) that can help the economy in the long run. Businesses prosper when there are good roads and an educated work force. If I'm not mistaken, this is the type of deficit spending that John Maynard Keynes advocated--the kind that yields beneficial returns for the economy. Liberals point out to me that the deficit we've accumulated from the Iraq War is different, since the money is going down a hole in that case.

My response to that will not surprise my readers. I feel that a lot of domestic government spending is going down a hole. Government-funded schools do not necessarily produce a better educated work force, for example. In fact, the lack of competition in public education seems to create the opposite effect. So one can legitimately ask, "What beneficial returns?"

I realize that this post may not be my clearest, since I'm thinking out loud. There are also many economic rules that I don't understand. Why does the budget deficit lead to higher interest rates? It has something to do with selling bonds, but what? I read that the budget deficit means that Americans save less. How so? Just because the government doesn't balance its checkbook, that shouldn't mean that I can't. Maybe there are some good books or articles that can fill in the gaps.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

11 Years, No Growth?

Last night, I was reading Hosea 7:14-16 for my daily quiet time. Essentially, the passage says that the Israelites do not cry out to God from their hearts, but they wail on their beds and cut themselves for grain and wine. It also criticizes them for going to Egypt for help rather than God.

The Israelites were in a lot of pain, yet they were not releasing their pain to God. They simply grieved, without allowing God to use their grief for something positive. They chose not to pursue the hope and healing that comes through communion with God, but they remained alone with their pain. Their "solution" to their problem was to do what appeared practical: they tried to cozy up to Egypt so that she would make them feel secure. But there was no security in Egypt, for Egypt could easily turn on them or get defeated herself.

I've always struggled with the whole Egypt motif in the prophets. Why did the prophets criticize Israel for seeking Egypt's help? Is it wrong to have allies? Was the problem that the Israelites were relying on Egypt rather than God? Would God have allowed them to trust in him and do the practical thing (have a strong ally)? My hunch is no, since God categorically tells them not to go to Egypt. This command seems to have come to Hezekiah, a righteous king who lived during the time of Isaiah and actually tried to have it both ways (consulting God and Egypt at the same time). So does God want us to rely on him alone? Should we avoid doing anything practical that can help our situation, since that would indicate a lack of faith?

I've struggled with this motif for a while, but it is starting to hit home particularly at this time in my life. I will be seeing some secular therapists in the hope that they will help me to deal with certain problems. To a lot of Christians, that is simply unacceptable. For them, I should trust God to change me. I can picture them saying that the way to deal with my problems is to pray, pray, pray.

But, as I thought back last night, I realized that I have been praying--for eleven years. Eleven years ago, I decided to talk to God every day. At various points during those years, I thought that prayer would make me into a better person, someone who is more reverent, loving, peaceful, and forgiving. At the Seventh Day Adventist churches that I attended, I was continually told, "By beholding, we become changed." That means that thinking about God (beholding) makes us more like God in terms of our character. Well, I've been praying for eleven years. I've been doing a daily quiet time for nine of those years. I still have a lot of bitterness towards people. The social anxiety that plagued me years ago continues today. I've not even gotten some of the blessings that I've requested, such as a girlfriend. For me, prayer alone doesn't cut it. I need to learn practical skills, in terms of socializing with others and coping with life's challenges.

On a certain level, the Bible agrees with me. Proverbs 11:14 says, "Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety." Proverbs in general is a book of practical suggestions on how to navigate my way through life. Also, God didn't intend for my spiritual life to consist only of me and him. That's why Jesus started the church: we need all of the guidance, wisdom, and encouragement that we can get.

I'm hoping to somehow incorporate what I learn from therapy into my Christian faith. I'll have to see if this is possible. My problem is that secular counselors do not necessarily have Christian presuppositions. The goal of secular counseling is to offer tips that can make the old man better. Christianity says, "Who cares about the old man? Become a new creation!" For Christianity, it's almost as if saying a few magic words will make my deficiencies go away. Secular counseling views the male sex drive as natural, and it understands why people are bitter or jealous, even as it wants people to heal. By contrast, Christianity says, "Lust is adultery, and hatred is murder. Who cares if these things are natural? Human nature is fallen. Who cares about the reasons that you are angry or jealous? The reason is that you're a sinner. Get over it! Become a new creation!"

I'm not saying that secular counseling is perfect, for it seems to have a rather libertine approach to life. "You can do what you want, as long as it makes you happy and doesn't hurt anyone else," I heard a secular therapist once say. And that can mean that homosexuality, premarital sex, and no-fault divorce are perfectly all right. But these things have profoundly negative consequences, such as STDs, unplanned pregnancy, a cheapening of sex, and a breakdown of the home.

Will I continue to pray, even if it doesn't seem to work? Absolutely. I need a friend, and God is someone I can contact at any time during the day. There are many people who love me, but God is the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Also, even though I often feel that the Bible or Christianity doesn't speak to my current situation, I may find at some point that it does. I just need to keep praying and reading, each and every day.

I once read a story about a person who was discouraged with church. He complained that he had gone to church for 30 years, heard 3,000 sermons, and didn't remember any one of them. A friend then asked him if he remembered all of the 3,000 meals his wife made him during his marriage. He didn't remember them, but they were still nourishing and sustaining him during all that time. Similarly, he may not have felt that he was getting anything out of church, but he was. God was nourishing him throughout his life. And maybe God has been nourishing me during my years of prayer and Bible study.

Also, prayer is important because it helps others. I am blessed because the Internet gives me opportunites to pray for other people. When I walk into a church, I don't really know the people well enough to have an understanding of their problems, and they usually don't share them with me at the service. Plus, I have difficulty getting to know people anyway. Through the Internet, however, I can read a person's problem and post a prayer. Prayer works! Not only does God hear it, but it also creates a feeling of solidarity among believers. I can't solve someone else's problems, since they are often out of my hands, but I can still pray for them. And many times I just need to get my mind off of myself long enough to realize that others have problems, sometimes worse than mine.

So maybe I am growing, whether or not I can see the growth in progress. Or perhaps God has given me more opportunities to serve than I've had in the past. The opportunities are great, but I still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Seeing the Bright Side, and Then Not

Yesterday, I talked about some of my problems with Christianity in light of my Asperger's Syndrome. Today, I want to discuss Christianity's assets. I may contradict some of what I said yesterday, but, hopefully, my readers have come to expect a lack of stability in my posts.

One aspect of Christianity that attracts me is grace: the notion that God took the first step to initiate a loving relationship with me, even though I'm undeserving. In most social situations, I feel as if I have to earn people's love. If I am intelligent, witty, articulate, charming, attractive, talented, or have money, then people will like me. If I am lacking in those things (or cannot effectively convey to others that I have them), then they dislike me, dismiss me, or forget about me.

God, however, is different. God loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). Whether I am rich or poor, handsome or ugly, talented or inept, charming or repulsive, God loves me and desires a relationship with me. And another comforting thought is this: Even those whose social skills are better than mine are not necessarily in a better position, as far as God is concerned. In God's eyes, all are sinners in need of a Savior. We all have moral flaws and need to grow, so we shouldn't look down on one another.

Another aspect of Christianity that somewhat appeals to me is the idea of regeneration. I say "somewhat" because I have mixed feelings. Christianity promises that God can change me, which resonates with me, since I have difficulty changing myself. In a sense, Christianity doesn't advocate doing as much as being. God doesn't just want us to avoid murder and adultery, but he wants us to be the types of people who do not hate and lust. He desires for us to be pure on the inside and the outside, not merely to avoid outward sins. This contradicts what I said yesterday, when I complained that Christianity (unlike Judaism) does not offer clear, doable tasks that I can understand and follow. Of course it doesn't, since it is concerned with how we are, not just what we do. And God is the only one who can change how we are.

Another reason for my mixed feelings is that I don't always see the fruits of regeneration in the lives of myself or other Christians. I'm not saying this from the standpoint of an atheist, who smugly condemns Christians while ignoring his own moral shortcomings and those of other atheists (e.g., Stalin, Mao). Nor am I contending that I am different from all those morally degenerate Christians, since I struggle to see the fruit of the Spirit in my own life, as well as the lives of others. I'm just saying that there are a lot of Christians out there who are jerks. Christians act as if believing the way they do brings moral superiority, but I really fail to see how they are better than anyone else. Not only do they practice the same sins, but they also do a lot of the same good deeds.

This gives me problems with a lot of Christian cliches that I've heard over the years. For example, Christians say that we should be nice to others to draw them to Christ. Once unbelievers see how nice we are, the argument runs, then they will want what we have and convert to Christianity. But Christians don't have a monopoly on being nice. There are people of all religions, philosophies, and creeds who appear to be friendly, affable people. Why should my being nice draw someone else to my worldview, when that person will undoubtedly encounter nice people with other perspectives?

Conversely, I've heard Christians say that, if we sin, then that will compromise our witness, making non-believers question God's ability to change people. But if God automatically changes people once they become Christians, then why do Christians sin? And why should I have to put on a false mask to convince others that God has changed me? If God has changed me, then I shouldn't have to pretend to be something I'm not in order to attract people. I just feel that Christians want me to do false advertising for God. I'm not saying that God hasn't changed people. I just don't think that I should have to pretend that God has changed me or made me perfect. He hasn't, or at least not as much as I'd like.

So I set out to write about Christianity's assets, and I ended up complaining about its deficiencies (from my perspective). Sometimes, as I struggle with my life and faith, I just wonder if I can find any place to rest.

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