Friday, February 29, 2008

Money Does Not Equal Security

In one of my quiet times yesterday, I was reading Zephaniah 1:8: "Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD's wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth" (NRSV).

At first, the passage gave me a bad taste in my mouth. And the taste got even worse when I checked out my old notes on Zephaniah 1. Basically, I wrote in my notebook that wealth will not help us at the last judgment.

So why the bad taste? Well, the old James reminded me of that preacher in Pollyanna, before Haley Mills worked her magic on him. At the beginning of the movie, he tried to scare people into submission with a message of judgment and hell fire. Near the end, he changed his tune, for he preached instead on the more positive aspects of Scripture, the parts that Pollyanna's preacher father called "the glad texts."

There's something that turns me off about going through each day with fear and self-loathing. The people in that minister's audience were not bad people. They were small-town folks who tried to live their day-to-day lives. They didn't deserve to be chewed out every Sunday. Going through each day with a positive attitude is far more beneficial than doing so with absolute terror. From a practical standpoint, seeing God as a friend is far better than viewing him as a judge.

In the course of my quiet time, I started to fantasize. "Man, I wish I could win that Publishers' Clearing House $10 million dollar prize," I thought. "Imagine that! Lifetime economic security. I wouldn't have to suck up to anybody. I'd be set for life. I wouldn't have to worry about my livelihood ever again." For me at that time, wealth meant absolute invulnerability. And it was then that I understood Zephaniah 1:8 a little bit better.

The thought entered my mind: "Even if you got rich, you'd still have to be a moral person." And I can picture myself being not that moral if I were to become wealthy. Maybe I'd feel that I didn't need God anymore, since my wealth would give me a new lifetime security. Why help out the poor or anyone else, if I no longer needed to please God to receive temporal blessing and provision? Would I even sympathize with the problems of others, once I no longer had to worry about them myself? I can see myself chasing pleasure in inappropriate ways. With wealth, I could assume that I can do whatever I want. Of course, I'd have to obey the legal limits that society has set, but the rich people in Zephaniah's day bought the judges, so they didn't even see a need to do that.

And so what would keep me on the straight and narrow if I were to become wealthy? A sense that I am under the authority of a higher power, meaning that I'm not invulnerable. God's judgment is something that makes all of us obligated to him.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Late Reflections on the Cleveland Debate

Because I was writing about William F. Buckley, Jr. yesterday, I did not comment on the February 26 debate in Cleveland. At this time, one post is enough to wipe me out for the day. At other times, I can't write enough.

Some of what I was thinking when I watched the debate has been said by others within the past few days. When Obama said that he would send troops back to Iraq if there were a danger of it becoming a base for Al-Qaeda, I thought, "Well, Al-Qaeda is already in Iraq. Why not keep the troops there rather than withdrawing them and sending them back?" John McCain basically made this point the day after the debate. Maybe I was transmitting some of my ability for insight onto him when I saw him in person this last Tuesday.

Obama's position is different from that of Ron Paul, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. What I mean is this: Ron Paul's position is simple. He just says that the United States should not interfere in the Middle East, since our involvement has incited anti-American sentiment. For Paul, if we leave the Arab nations alone, then they will come to leave us alone. Ron Paul's opposition to the Iraq War fits under his overall commitment to a non-interventionist foreign policy.

But Obama does not want a non-interventionist foreign policy. He wants to bomb parts of Pakistan that harbor terrorists. He supports sending troops back to Iraq if the country is in danger of becoming a base for Al-Qaeda. He obviously supports some kind of war on terror. So what exactly is his basis for opposing the war in Iraq? He said in the debate that he knew in 2002 that the Iraq War would fuel anti-American sentiment. So does he think we should avoid actions that could make other nations (or terrorist organizations) dislike us? If that was his reason to oppose the war, then shouldn't the same rationale apply to his ideas of bombing Pakistan or sending troops back to Iraq? Any display of force we make against the terrorists will make them mad at us.

Interestingly, even Ron Paul does not appear to be entirely consistent in his foreign policy stance, particularly when he voted for the resolution to invade Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. So he supported using intervention to stop a sponsor of terror in the case of Afghanistan, but not in the case of Iraq. "But Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, and he was the guy who attacked us," I can hear people saying. True, but Saddam Hussein had cooperated with Al-Qaeda for some time, even going so far as to support an organization that Bin Laden had founded in its war against the Kurds (see The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 61, 66). Obama responded to McCain by saying that Al-Qaeda is in Iraq right now because of our invasion, which McCain supported. Actually, Iraq and Al-Qaeda had a relationship before we went into Iraq.

Here's some more news on Obama: According to CTV news in Canada, a high-ranking Obama staffer told Canada's ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, not to take what Obama says about NAFTA too seriously (see CTV.ca Obama staffer gave warning of NAFTA rhetoric). In the debate, Obama said he would tell Canada and Mexico "that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labour and environmental standards." But his staffer told the Canadian ambassador not to worry, for this is just rhetoric. So we can't trust Obama to say what he means and mean what he says? Will we truly get change in an Obama Administration, or merely a return to Clintonian spin?

Overall, Hillary did not make an impressive performance in the debate. She did not display the winsome, laughing image that she's been trying to project throughout her campaign. Rather, she had her characteristic Hillary scowl, even when Obama was praising her. And she accused the news media of giving Obama a free ride. We have seen this aspect of Hillary before: Hillary the conspiracy-theorist. Quite frankly, I think that Tim Russert asked Obama some hard questions, just as he did for Hillary, so I didn't see much favoritism. In the debate, Hillary only confirmed the image that many people have of her: as someone who is cold and paranoid.

Maybe she's just tired right now. I'd be tired too if I were losing primary after primary. Or perhaps she's responding to the way that Saturday Night Live portrayed the Democratic debate in Texas. "On this skit, the character playing me laughs too much, and the media is giving Obama a free ride," she was probably thinking. "Perhaps that is the way things really are." And so she overcompensated by appearing colder than she's usually been in the campaign.

Hillary had to make quite an impression in the last debate to win Ohio and Texas. In my opinion, she failed. We'll see soon how things turn out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. (November 24, 1925-February 27, 2008)

To be honest, I haven't read much by William F. Buckley, Jr., nor did I watch Firing Line all that often. I first heard of William F. Buckley when my mom bought me a copy of his book, Up from Liberalism. I was just a kid, so I really didn't understand much of what he was saying. I knew that I was a conservative because I liked the speeches of Ronald Reagan, with all their talk about freedom and liberty and low taxes and limited government. But Buckley used too many big words for my taste, and I did not have the patience to look them up in the dictionary.

There were some aspects of his book that I clearly understood. He showed that liberals use many of the same tactics that they decry as McCarthyite (e.g., blacklisting, guilt by association, etc.), and he argued against Governor Nelson Rockefeller's big government spending projects. But, at the time, I wasn't overly gifted at seeing how various parts of a book can function together to make a coherent argument. For example, in his discussion on civil rights, he noted that many of the states that voted for the Fourteenth Amendment also supported segregated schools in their own regions, so he seemed to deny that segregation contradicted the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment. But he also included a moving story from a source about Jesus coming back to earth and opposing segregation. And then there was another line in his book in which he said, "Some people say that the government can't do anything right. It sure can arrest the Communists, can it?" So I wasn't entirely sure if he agreed with the concept of limited government in that line or not, even though he definitely embraced it in other parts of the book.

That was my problem with reading him: you had to pay extra close attention to understand his argument. I preferred a binary system of thinking: conservatives are the good guys, liberals are the bad guys, and government should consign itself to a bare minimum. When I reread Up from Liberalism years later, he came across more as a binary thinker. Yet, my old impression of him frequently resurfaced when I read his columns or watched Firing Line on occasion. He never reminded me of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes, I asked myself after reading his column, "So how's this guy a conservative? That column wasn't exactly rah-rah Bush!" And, one time on Firing Line, he seemed to dispute the notion that AIDS was God's punishment on homosexuals. After all, he asked, why would God single out homosexuals while ignoring other sinners? He had a point there. Overall, he struck me as different from other conservatives I read or listened to on the radio: he appeared to have a grasp on nuances.

He also came across to me as an intellectual elitist. That's just my judgmentalism speaking, but he always struck me as an Ivory Tower sort of personality who was always up for a game of Squash (whatever that is). I was surprised when I saw Archie Bunker praising him on All in the Family, for Buckley always struck me as a conservative Meathead. But his urbanity sometimes served him well, in my opinion. I once watched a clip in which he cussed out his liberal co-host Gore Vidal, and he didn't exactly appear to be a gutter mouth. He still looked and sounded urbane, even though trash was coming out of his lips.

But I think that I should read more of Buckley. There have been times when I've read pieces of Firing Line transcripts, and I admire his willingness to take on all kinds of liberals, from Michael Harrington to Jesse Jackson. He had a grasp of the nuances, and that led him to question liberal assumptions.

At times, his articles did appear to be simple, and I liked that. When the Cold War was drawing to a close, I gravitated to that part of the right that warned, "Not so fast! Don't trust that Commie Gorbachev. He may appear nice, but underneath that friendly exterior is just another Communist dictator who wants to rule the world. Don't let your guard down, Ron! Keep building those nukes and arming the Contras." And Buckley had articles that expressed that sort of line, so I cut them out and put them in my article collection. But Reagan turned out to be right, while Buckley and I ended up being wrong. Oh well. There's still nothing wrong with a little caution. Even Reagan said "Trust but verify."

Sometimes, his books made me draw opposite conclusions from what he may have intended. For example, when I was a kid, I read God and Man at Yale, which had a chapter on how these liberal professors at Yale were indoctrinating their students. I agreed with him on the seriousness of that problem, but, when he mentioned one professor who made fun of Christians for consigning all of the philosophers to hell, my reaction was: "That's not very nice of Christians, is it? Those philosophers had some profound thoughts." Years later, I learned that the professor was only partially correct: some Christians didn't think much of the philosophers, but others did.

When I read Up from Liberalism a second time, when I had just started my Ph.D. program, new things stuck out to me. Buckley appeared to be a critic of democracy, for he did not believe that something was right just because a majority happened to vote for it. But he did favor freedom, individual rights, and smaller government. He just seemed to believe that democracy could contradict those virtues. And he has a point. A lot of socialistic countries in the world are democracies, believe it or not.

There is one book I have that I have not yet read. It is William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Pied Piper of the Establishment, by John F. McManus of the John Birch Society. McManus' argument is that Buckley was an establishment plant whose job was to turn conservatism away from its roots of limited government and a non-interventionist foreign policy. McManus also documents several liberal positions that Buckley held, on such issues as abortion, pornography, and giving away the Panama Canal (an issue that Buckley debated with Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly). It is worth reading, but I have always been puzzled about why an anti-Communist organization such as the John Birch Society embraced a non-interventionist foreign policy during the height of the Cold War. It didn't even like NATO! I mean, we were intervening in other countries to fight Communism, right?

Buckley himself wrote a book that I would like to read. It is a fictional work about the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand. Buckley was a critic of both of them, but I wouldn't be surprised if he admired certain aspects of what they said and did. In its heyday, the John Birch Society was effective at organizing masses of people around a cause. And Ayn Rand was entertaining to watch on talk shows, especially when she put down liberals with her caustic, opinionated wit. I doubt that Buckley's book presents them as evil. It probably just views them as an ideological dead end.

So I'm not exactly the biggest Buckley fan on the face of the earth. Why, then, am I writing about him? First, I feel that this is the only opportunity I will have to write about his life, since a person's death provides the best chance for that kind of reflection. I'm not ready to write this post because there is so much that I'd like to read both by and about him. He's still a mystery to me. But, unfortunately, he didn't wait to die before I could learn more about him.

Second, I feel as if I stand on his shoulders. I am a conservative, after all, and he was one of the movers and shakers of the conservative movement, long before conservatism became "cool." He helped set the groundwork for conservatives to enter the media and politics, for he brought conservatism into national circulation. For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Today, even liberals admire Bill Buckley, for they see him as an exemplar of a higher form of debate. Buckley himself seemed to reject that kind of admiration, especially when liberals contrasted him with popular conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Buckley told Rush that he actually approved of his work. Still, the liberals have a point, for Buckley exemplified behavior that should characterize national discourse: state your point of view, focus on arguments, engage your opponents, try not to personally attack those with differing positions (though personalities did enter his writing, for that is often unavoidable).

He's still a mystery to me, yet I owe him a special thank you. For some reason, I feel like we lost a giant today.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My Morning with John McCain

I went to a John McCain rally this morning. I heard about it a few days ago, when a fellow Republican left an automated message on my answering machine. He mentioned the time and place of the rally, and I recognized the place as within walking distance. As a conservative, I'm not totally crazy about John McCain, but I decided to go. After all, who knows? He may very well be our next President.

My mom said that this was the second Presidential candidate I have personally seen, for I saw Reagan pass by me in a car during the 1980 election. Indeed I did, but I was too young to remember it. Still, I have seen the picture. I informed my mom that McCain is actually the third Presidential candidate I have seen live. I went to a Pat Buchanan rally in 1996, and Pat looked straight at me. He was asking the reporters if they had any questions when he did that, so he must have thought I was a journalist.

The rally was at 11:30. I got up at 9:30 and left my apartment at 10:00. It's usually an hour walk to that part of town, so I was expecting to get there in time to claim a seat. Well, it was a little farther than I thought, so I actually was walking to the building at 11:30. I didn't get a seat, but I did eventually get to go inside and listen to the speech. And he seemed to look straight at me on one occasion. Unlike with Buchanan, however, I could be wrong on this, since there was quite a distance between McCain and myself.

When I got to the building, McCain himself had not yet arrived. There were some liberal protesters who were chanting "Save our homes!" and "Save our jobs! Fair trade now!" I was angry. I just get mad whenever I see left-wing protesters. But the McCain supporters were pretty laid back. "This is our entertainment while we are waiting," an older gentleman beside me said.

Overall, the McCain supporters seemed somewhat lukewarm. The lefties were shouting and chanting, whereas we McCain supporters just stood there and watched. At one point, some high school students infiltrated the leftist march carrying McCain signs, but they didn't do that for long. The protesters just ignored them.

Then, when the McCain people did try to come up with chants of their own, they ended up being pretty lame. One group shouted "John McCain," and another group responded "Is okay." Well, I'm glad that we Republicans feel so passionately about our candidate, seeing that the best we can call him is "okay."

At the same time, the McCain supporters were pretty entertaining, to say the least. I talked with a Vietnam veteran who hated John Kerry. "John McCain was in the heat of battle in Vietnam," he said. "John Kerry, on the other hand, was on a boat. Wow! Swoon!" He told me stories of how he lived in Massachusetts and successfully intimidated Kerry into getting him his veteran's benefits. I liked him from the start because he said, "Those lefties don't know what they're talking about."

Then there were some elderly people beside me chanting "Hail Mary's." So apparently McCain has the support of some conservative Catholics. Maybe these people go to my church, even though its newspaper claims that McCain is weak on the abortion issue.

There were three middle-aged women in front of me. When one of them saw the protesters, she said, "Well, have pity on them. They're young. Wait until they get jobs. Then they'll become Republicans." True, about half of the protesters were young, but the other half consisted of middle-aged African-Americans, middle-aged whites, and old men dressed like professors.

This woman had some other gems. When the protesters chanted "Justice for Iraq!", she replied, "Well, we've occupied Japan all these years, and they're happy." When one held up a sign that said "John McCain has a home. Why can't we?", she responded, "Well, why don't you save for a home rather than looking to the government?"

Interestingly, these McCain supporters have experienced some of the very problems that the Democrats claim they want to solve. The Vietnam veteran said he had a job without health insurance. The vocal woman, who works at Kroger's, talked about a friend who had no health coverage. But her friend and she pointed out the problems with universal health care.

I technically should have been with another group of protesters. Across the street, there were four old men who were protesting McCain's record on illegal immigration, which conservatives detest as "shamnesty." But I was hoping to shake the candidate's hand, so I stayed with the McCain people.

Eventually, the McCain bus came down the road. In making a path for McCain from the bus to the building, the McCain people essentially moved the liberal protesters to an inconspicuous location. My side (Republicans) may not be good at coming up with chants, but we sure can do crowd control! Those protesters weren't even there after the rally, when we were waiting for McCain to come out of the building.

How did McCain strike me in person? Well, he looked smaller than he does on television. He also had whiter eyebrows, whereas they appear darker on TV.

McCain's speech was okay. He talked about giving job training to unemployed workers, which was appropriate for Ohio, where people are losing their jobs (though I wonder how many jobs are being created on account of free trade). He pushed for the FISA legislation and making the Bush tax cuts permanent. He said that America is number two in the corporate tax burden, which he rightfully portrayed as a bad thing. He supported government funding of alternative energy because of global warming and the imprudence of buying oil from nations that support terrorism. He supported nuclear power and made swipes at France, yet he lauded France's new pro-American leader. He defended the surge and stressed that he would never surrender to Al-Qaeda. He advocated a new system of health care for veterans in which they would get a card that they could use at any hospital of their choice, rather than having to wait in long lines at veterans' hospitals (and I've been to a veterans' hospital--he's not kidding about the lines!). Then, he brought his speech to a close, but I don't remember how.

There was thunderous applause for the parts about FISA, tax cuts, Bush having prevented another attack, fighting Al-Qaeda, and supporting veterans. I was thunderously applauding at those moments. But even some of the people with McCain buttons were not clapping at the parts about the government funding alternative energy. My impression is that these are conservatives who are trying to reconcile themselves to a McCain candidacy. "He is the Republican candidate," they are probably thinking, "so we'd might as well get used to him. After all, we don't want a real socialist like Hillary or Obama, do we?"

When I was walking behind one group, a woman said, "You know, I just don't think the government does most things right. Look at the FEMA trailers!" I was thinking, "Did you and I hear the same McCain speech? The government should spend here, and be involved there, and interfere here." Well, for all I know, she may have had the same reaction to the speech that I did. Maybe she wasn't gun-ho about McCain either, but was there either to see a celebrity or to make her peace with the GOP nominee.

After the speech, we were outside the building waiting for McCain to come out. We'd clap, thinking he was about to come out, and then he didn't. That happened twice (or more). It reminds me of a time when I was in a crowd in Chicago waiting for Michael Jordan to come out of a building, when he wasn't even there. The Republican high school students were trying to create a chant--"Hey John McCain, it's snowing today," or something like that. They were even holding a sign that said, "We like old people."

What was really weird was this one group of young activists that was passing out stickers and fliers. Guess what their cause was. Iraq? Stop special interests? Abortion? No on all three. They were supporting clean coal. Personally, I don't know the difference between clean coal and unclean coal. I may have offended one of them when I said, "Yeah, another group seeking a federal handout," but I was frustrated with McCain's big government spiel on energy. I should learn not to say what I think at all times--the place for that is my blog, not always in public. But, in any case, I'm still puzzled: Why are young people so enthusiastic about clean coal?

And, in the end, I was disappointed because I didn't get to shake Senator McCain's hand. He had his back to me. But I did get to see him close up. I also got to see Ohio's former Republican Senator, Mike Dewine.

My emotions about the whole experience were mixed. I really liked the people. There is a sense of camaraderie that comes with being at a rally, even if I'll never see these people again. We all laughed at the same jokes and smiled at each other, despite the fact that we were strangers.

At the same time, I had a hard time getting excited about John McCain. If it were Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul or George W. Bush, I'd be jumping up and down, shouting at the demonstrators (though the lefties would probably be on my side at a Ron Paul rally), thunderously applauding every word, and waving my hand with a resounding "Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!" But I feel that John McCain is too liberal, even though I like his opposition to earmarks. His campaign left an automated message on my answering machine a day before the rally, and here were my reactions:

McCain: "We must make the Bush tax cuts permanent."

James: "Then why'd you vote against them?"

McCain: "I'll appoint justices like Scalia and Thomas."

James: "But Bob Novak says you criticized Alito."

McCain: "We must protect our borders."

James: "Like YOU have any credibility there!"

So, when a middle-aged woman after the rally came up next to me and said, "Wasn't that exciting?!", I had a hard time agreeing. But she liked seeing Presidential candidates in general, since she had recently been to an Obama event.

So it was an okay experience, and I'm glad I went. At least I'll be able to tell my kids that I saw the President, assuming that he wins in November.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Causing the Nazirites to Stumble

In Amos 2:12, God criticizes the Israelites for giving wine to the Nazirites. This was a no-no because the Nazirites were not supposed to drink alcohol during the fulfillment of their vow.

The specifics of the Nazirite vow are contained in Numbers 6. In a sense, a person who takes a Nazirite vow places himself in a priestly condition for a period of time. Like the high priest, he is not to defile himself through contact with a corpse, even if it belongs to someone from his immediate family (cp. Numbers 6:7 and Leviticus 21:11). Another possible similarity between Nazirites and priests is that the Nazirites cannot shave their heads for the duration of their vow, and the priests cannot "make bald spots upon their heads, or shave off the edges of their beards" (cp. Numbers 6:5 and Leviticus 21:5). And the Nazirite is not to drink wine, as priests are forbidden to drink alcohol when they enter the tent of meeting (cp. Numbers 6:3 and Leviticus 10:9). Becoming a Nazirite is entering a state of greater holiness, which requires more purity than the average Israelite must assume.

What was the purpose of the vow? In the Hebrew Bible, vows often occur within a quid pro quo context. The worshipper essentially tells God, "Look, if you do this for me, then I will do this for you." We see this scenario with the vows of Jacob (Genesis 28:20), the Israelites at war with Canaan (Numbers 21:2), Jephthah (Judges 11:30), Hannah (I Samuel 1:11), and Absalom (II Samuel 15:7-8).

Vows are serious in the Hebrew Bible. Jephthah performed his vow, even though it meant that he had to sacrifice his daughter. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 says that people who do not keep their vows are guilty before God. And Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 says that it is better not to vow than to make a vow and then break it. In case that point is not clear enough, v 6 threatens that God can destroy the work of a person's hands.

And the Nazirite vow was no joke, for a person in the process of fulfilling it could not even bury his own parents. If he accidentally encountered a dead body, however, then he had to shave his head, offer some sacrifices, and start from scratch (Numbers 6:9-12). But he could do that only if someone suddenly died near him, a situation that he could not control. Overall, he had to keep his vow, for that indicated his respect for God.

When the Israelites of Amos 2:12 give the Nazirites wine to drink, they are showing disrespect to God, for they do not honor the vow that the Nazirites have made to him. But they also are not respecting the Nazirite's personal relationship with God, for they are trying to get him to disregard it. God wants people to honor their commitments to him, and it doesn't help matters when someone is seeking to undermine them through stumbling-blocks.

This concept helps me to better understand passages such as Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 in the New Testament. In both passages, God is concerned about the personal qualms that characterize the walks of certain Christians. Some Christians did not want to eat meat, particularly when it was offered to idols. Some preferred not to drink alcohol. Some respected specific days. Essentially, they chose to honor God through abstention or the celebration of days. And Paul did not look down on those who did such things, for he says in Romans 14:6, "Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God."

Paul also says that the "stronger" Christians who eat and drink what they like are not to put a stumbling-block in the paths of their "weaker" brothers and sisters. He even goes so far as to say in Romans 14:21, "[I]t is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble." Basically, we are to avoid offensive behaviors that can influence others to transgress their consciences. And I have a problem with that concept. In my mind, it seems to give easily-offended Christians the God-given authority to control my own life. Should I avoid going to the movies because an anti-movies Christian might see me entering the theater and become offended? If a Christian drinks a beer at a restaurant, should he have to get rid of his drink if he sees a teetotaler Christian? Maybe the anti-movies and the tee-totaler Christians should learn some tolerance themselves. They should recognize that not everyone in the world has the same qualms that they have, rather than seeking to impose their preferences on everyone else.

Of course, I wouldn't deliberately get in anyone's face. I just have problems with professional weaker brothers (as Chuck Swindoll calls them) trying to run my life. At the same time, I believe that I should respect the personal covenants that people make with God, rather than seeking to undermine them.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Some Political News

Have you ever come across something that you absolutely have to pass on to your circle of influence? Well, here are a few items that I want to pass on:

1. Hillary accuses Barack Obama of plagiarism. Well, take a look at what was on today's Meet the Press (see netcast or transcript, page 5):

(Videotape, February 21, 2008)
SEN. CLINTON: You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.
(End videotape)
(Videotape, February 18, 1992)
FMR. PRES. CLINTON: The hits that I took in this election are nothing compared to the hits that the people of this state and this country are taking every day of their lives.
(End videotape)
(Videotape, February 21, 2008)
SEN. CLINTON: Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that's what this election should be about.
(End videotape)
(Videotape, December 13, 2007)
FMR. SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: What's not at stake are any of us. All of us are going to be just fine, no matter what happens in this election. But what's at stake is whether America is going to be fine.
(End videotape)

Sounds similar, huh? Looks to me like Hillary was advocating the sort of change that you can Xerox, in the very same debate in which she was accusing Obama of doing precisely that. As I said in my comments on that debate, there is a strong chance that Hillary phrases her words out of political calculation, not what she truly feels. Is she a humble woman who doesn't care about getting power? I wouldn't bet my apartment on it!

2. The Kucinich campaign has this video on Obama: Omama . Do you think Obama cares about rising health care costs or companies ditching small towns and leaving people unemployed? Well, according to this video, Michelle Obama has actually contibuted to these very problems. I post this with great reluctance, since I consider Barack and Michelle Obama to be likable people. But I hope that they will offer an explanation for this when the general election comes.

Micah's Search for an Honest Man

In the fourth century B.C.E., Diogenes the Cynic carried a lamp in the streets of Greece in search of an honest man. Similarly, about four centuries earlier, the prophet Micah was looking for at least one honest person in Judah. Unfortunately, like Diogenes, he could not find any. Micah 7:1-7 states the following:

"Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and there is no one left who is upright; they all lie in wait for blood, and they hunt each other with nets. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. But as for me, I will look to the LORD, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me" (NRSV).

According to this passage, Micah is hungering to find just one righteous person in Judah, but he can't, for everyone around him is murderous, conniving, and skilled in evil. Justice is perverted, as corrupt judges accept bribes and allow the rich to run roughshod over the poor. And things are so bad that people cannot trust their friends, even the people in their own immediate families. Micah concludes that God is the only one he can really trust.

Psalm 14:2-3 presents God himself as failing in his search for an honest person. The passage states, "The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one."

The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 14:2-3 in Romans 3:10-11 to support his argument that all people are sinful. In Paul's thought, that reality sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who died to redeem and transform corrupt humanity.

My reaction to Micah 7:1-7, Psalm 14:2-3, and Romans 3:10-11 is mixed. Can I truly say that I've never met a righteous person, not even one? No. Not everyone I meet is bloodthirsty, dishonest, or thoroughly selfish. Sure, there are times in my alienation when I have a "nobody loves me" attitude and feel that all human beings are cold and uncaring. When I am in this state of mind, I scoff whenever I hear the word "community," for I have a hard time developing warm feelings towards other people. "What have they ever done for me?" I think. But my impression is not entirely accurate, for there actually are good people out there who really do want to help others. And these people can be found among both Christians and also non-Christians, so I have a hard time accepting the notion that unredeemed human beings are more corrupt than those who have been transformed by Jesus Christ. There are good people and there are bad people in both camps.

I know how many evangelicals would respond. "Sure, there are unbelievers who do good things, but they are not perfect, and God only accepts perfection." Part of me can see their point on this, since God in Leviticus only accepts unblemished sacrifices. At the same time, however, Paul does not present human beings as slightly less than perfect. Read what he says about the human race in Romans 3:12-18: "All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes."

Can you honestly say that you have never met one non-Christian human being who shows kindness to others? Is every human being you encounter a liar who is quick to shed innocent blood?

Also, how would the idea that all human beings are corrupt affect my interactions with them? I think it would do so rather negatively. How are you around people you cannot trust?

Did Micah or the author of Psalm 14 figure that all human beings are inherently corrupt and incapable of goodness? Would they agree with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity? I am hesitant to answer "yes." Why would Micah and God even look for a righteous person if they thought that human nature precluded the existence of such a one? Psalm 14:5 says that "God is with the company of the righteous." So now there are righteous people, Mr. Psalmist? And there was a time when God was not completely unsuccessful in his search for an upright person: he spared Noah because he alone was righteous in his generation (Genesis 7:1).

But I said that my reaction to Micah 7:1-7, Psalm 14:2-3, and Romans 3:10-11 was mixed, so there is a sense in which I can identify with those passages' utter despair about humanity. For one, Jonathan Edwards noted in his book, Original Sin, that virtually every historical attempt to reform society has failed. Like Edwards, I attribute this to inherent flaws in human nature, such as selfishness and greed.

But I also think that human beings are getting worse. One of my favorite blogs, Things on Bryan's Mind, has an interesting post entitled, "Does this Mean that Patristic Writers Disconnect Human Redemption from the Cross of Jesus?" In the "Comments" section, Bryan states that "humanity has grown more and more corrupt, in Athanasius' view, subject to a kind of epidemic of evil." In many respects, I agree with that assessment. Humanity has become worse and worse as time has progressed. At one point in American history, there was a greater sense of community, as people actually looked out for one another. But that does not exist as much today. In their desire to make more and more money, insurance companies often deny coverage to certain individuals, showing a lack of concern about whether they live or die. Marital infidelity is rampant, to the point that it is glamorized on television and in movies. School shootings have occurred with greater frequency over the last decade than they ever did before.

A counselor of mine once told me a story that further confirmed my belief in the degeneration of humanity. He said that he has a granddaughter who is bullied in school because she is overweight. One time, she made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself. Shortly afterwards, she received a number of messages from her classmates expressing their wish that she had succeeded.

That is shocking. There were bullies when I was a kid, but I can't think of anyone who wished for another person to die. Things are worse now than they were when I was a kid, and I'm only 31. Jesus said in Matthew 24:12, "And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold." Are we seeing that today?

I have a hard time saying that human beings are totally bad, but I'm not about to suggest that they are inherently good. I'm not like Anne Frank, who could actually write that all people (even her Nazi captors) were good at heart. And I see both good and bad in myself. The question that faces all of is us, "To which will I yield?"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Is God Fair in the Book of Job?

For my daily quiet time last night, I was reading Nahum 2:10-13. Here, the prophet talks about God killing off some young lions, who represent the predatory Assyrians.

The passage reminded me of Job 38:39-40, in which God asks Job, "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?" (NRSV).

There are at least two ways to interpret Job 38:39-40. One approach is to present God as someone who takes care of his creation. In this scenario, God is saying this: "Job, you have been saying that I do not love you or the most vulnerable of society, and that I don't care about all the injustice in the world. But I am a loving God. I take care of my creation. I feed the lions, for Pete's sake! And so you have to believe me when I tell you that I love you. Sure, there are things that you do not understand, but I have a plan. You've got to trust me."

And another approach is to present God as someone who is all about power, not justice. In this scenario, God says this: "Look, Job, you rant about me being unfair, as if I am restricted by your puny definition of justice. The fact is that I do some pretty strange things that no one can comprehend. You bemoan the fact that I allow these predatory human beings to stomp all over the poor? Well, guess what? I'm also the one who gives the predatory lions their prey. I do strange things, and I don't have to answer to anyone's standards or expectations. I am God, and I have the power. And, if I ever want to share with you my purposes, then I will, but I most likely won't, since you wouldn't understand them anyway."

I have a hard time viewing God as arbitrary or devoid of moral principles. God is not like the devil. Even in the Book of Job, God is a creator rather than a destroyer. He has a moral standard, which is why he rewards Job for his righteousness at the beginning of the book. So to suggest that God is only about power is going too far.

But, at the same time, is God just in the Book of Job? If your definition of justice is God giving people what they deserve, then the answer is "no." Job is righteous. Job says so, and (more importantly) God says so. Yet, Job experiences suffering that he does not deserve. And so God is not exactly being fair in his treatment of Job.

So God is not all about power, but neither is he all about justice. Does that make God totally arbitrary? I don't think so, for God can have a reason for any of his actions that deviate from strict justice. In this case, God wanted to test Job to see if Job would curse him. God's goal was to determine if Job was truly righteous or was merely acting out of his own self-interest. After all, Job's service to God had also served Job rather well, since God had continually rewarded him for all his good works.

Maybe God wanted to show the Satan that his (God's) assessment of Job's character was correct. In this case, God's goal would have been to establish the validity of his own judgment, both to the Satan and also to the readers of the Book of Job. This would fit a lot of the Bible, in which God is concerned about his reputation.

Or perhaps God's aim was to find out for himself if Job was truly righteous. "But God already knew Job's heart!" I can hear people saying. Indeed, there are biblical passages about God knowing the thoughts and ways of human beings (see Psalm 139:1-4). But that is not the message of all of Scripture. After all, God says after he tested Abraham, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Genesis 22:12). Here, God tests Abraham to find out for himself if the person he's chosen is truly pious. That implies that he was not absolutely sure before the test. And that appears to be what's going on in the Book of Job.

But what is the purpose of the test? Does God test us to determine if he will continue to love us? If we fail the test, will God then ditch us? Based on the testimony of all of Scripture, my answer is "no." God tested the Israelites with manna to see if they would follow his Sabbath instructions (Exodus 16:4-5). They didn't, and God did not ditch them. Rather, he rebuked them and went over the command with them one more time. God promised to send false prophets who would promote idolatry, and his goal in that was to see if the Israelites truly loved him (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). After the Conquest, God left some Canaanites in the Promised Land "for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their ancestors by Moses" (Judges 3:4). Well, the Israelites failed those tests big time, for idolatry was a huge part of their day-to-day life. Did God abandon them? No, but God did get an idea about what to do next. When he saw that they had failed the test, he gave them what was necessary for their spiritual growth: discipline.

And the same appears to have been true of Job. You know, the Book of Job somewhat strikes me as less than smooth, to say the least. Here's what I would expect if I were reading it for the first time: God blesses Job for being righteous, Satan says that Job is only righteous because God pays him to be that way, God allows Satan to afflict him, Job stays true to his faith, and God rewards Job in the end (to the shame of Satan). Instead, the book reads like this: God blesses Job for his righteousness, Satan challenges Job's integrity, God lets Satan afflict Job, Job complains about God and life in general, God rebukes Job, and God rewards Job at the end. Many scholars would seek to end the discussion by dividing Job up into sources (e.g., the narrative, Job the Patient, Job the Impatient, Elihu, etc.). But what does the Book mean when we look at all of the sources together? For me, we see a story of God testing Job to see how he would act, and then working to correct any weaknesses or misconceptions that Job may have. God does for Job what the Psalmist requests in Psalm 139:23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

So is God all about power in the sense that he does things without a good reason? No. But is God always fair? Not necessarily, since he doesn't always give us what we deserve. But he does give us what we spiritually need. So, in my opinion, God is not obsessed with power or strict justice, but he is about righteousness, and that is good for us.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Amos 6:10

Gene Tucker in his HarperCollins Study Bible commentary on Amos is not kidding when he calls Amos 6:9-10 a "mysterious and ominous little scene." The New Revised Standard Version translates vv 9-10 as follows:

"If ten people remain in one house, they shall die. And if a relative, one who burns the dead, shall take up the body to bring it out of the house, and shall say to someone in the innermost parts of the house, 'Is anyone else with you?' the answer will come, 'No.' Then the relative shall say, 'Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.'"

What exactly is going on here? And what does not mentioning the name of the LORD have to do with any of this?

As is my custom, I checked the HarperCollins Study Bible and the Jewish Study Bible to find come historical-critical interpretations of this passage. And, as is usually the case, I walked away disappointed. The HarperCollins Study Bible merely said that this was a scene of "survivors hiding among the ruins and the bodies of the slain." Thanks a lot! I couldn't have figured that out on my own. So how does not mentioning the name of the LORD fit into all of this? But, to its credit, at least the HarperCollins Study Bible tried to offer an interpretation. The Jewish Study Bible didn't even comment on the verses.

And so I decided to consult the old E-Sword commentaries and that famous Jewish exegete of exegetes, Rashi. All of them made a good-faith effort to uncover the passage's plain sense meaning in light of its immediate context, or its peshat. But they arrived at various and interesting conclusions.

Here are what some of the commentaries have to say:

1. Albert Barnes envisions this scenario: There are ten people dying of pestilence in the house. One of their relatives, an uncle, comes to burn their dead bodies, since his function as a kinsman is to take care of their corpses. Barnes asserts that the Israelites ordinarily did not practice cremation, for they preferred burial places as an indication of their belief in the bodily resurrection. But they were burning the dead bodies at this time to contain the rampant pestilence that was sweeping the land.

The uncle notices that one of the people is barely alive, so he pulls him out of the house and asks him if there are any other survivors. He answers "no," then the uncle tells him not to mention God's name. According to Barnes, the Israelites were bitter with God because he had brought all of this wrath upon them. They had wanted nothing to do with God in their lives, when things were going well, and so they never really identified God as beneficent. Now, they want nothing to do with God at their deaths, since they only know him in terms of his vengeance. They shake their fists at God in the midst of their own punishment.

Barnes' interpretation looks reasonable, except when he projects later Jewish belief in the resurrection onto the time of Amos.

2. John Calvin offers a similar interpretation in his Geneva Bible, only, for him, the Israelites at one time boasted about God's name and their status as God's people, but they came to abhor God when they experienced his wrath. As far as the cremation is concerned, Calvin argues that there were few people to help with the burial of the dead, so someone burned the bodies at their homes so that he could dispose of them more easily. Calvin also seems to view cremation as out of the ordinary for the Israelite people, so he says that they only practiced it in emergency situations.

3. Gill sees another scenario. The uncle asks one of the survivors if there is anyone else who is alive in the house. The answer he hears is "no." Just as the survivor is about to curse God, the uncle tells him to be quiet, for they all deserve their punishment. So Gill views the uncle as an advocate for quiet acceptance rather than continued rebellion against God.

4. John Wesley offers the possibility that the uncle feels the time for seeking God has passed, since they are experiencing God's wrath. Therefore, he discourages the dying person from doing so.

5. Matthew Henry gives another option: "Perhaps it was forbidden by some of the idolatrous kings to make mention of the name of Jehovah, as by the law of Moses it was forbidden to make mention of the names of the heathen-gods: 'We may not do it without incurring the penalty.'" This is possible, since the Bible does portray certain rulers (e.g., Jezebel, Manasseh) getting rough with the Yahwist population. At the same time, why would a person who is about to die care about what an idolatrous king thinks of him?

6. Like other commentators, Keil and Delitzsch posit some practical reasons for the cremation, namely, logistics and germ control: "The description of the burier as mesârēph (a burner) therefore supposes the occurrence of such a multitude of deaths that it is impossible to bury the dead, whose corpses are obliged to be burned, for the purpose of preventing the air from being polluted by the decomposition of the corpses." Regarding the uncle's desire to avoid the name of the LORD, Keil and Delitzsch contend that he does not want the dying man to draw God's attention. "God is slaying the Israelite population!" the uncle is thinking. "It's best if this God does not know we are here."

7. Rashi presents this scenario: The enemy has just set a house on fire. There is an uncle and a person who is removing a body from the burning house. Rashi apparently takes the mesareph to be someone who rescues bodies from burning, not the burner himself. The rescuer asks the survivor if there are others in the house who are still alive, and he answers "no." In accordance with Targum Jonathan, Rashi interprets the rescuer to respond, "For this comes to them because they did not want to mention the Name of the Lord." For Rashi, v 10 means that God is punishing the Israelites because they had never cultivated a relationship with God. And Rashi's interpretation is one possible way to see that part of v 10, for it only says, "for not to mention in the name of the LORD." Interpreters and translators can fill in the gaps in a variety of ways.

So we have all of these understandings of Amos 6:10. They all present plausible interpretations, along with insights of how people respond to God in the face of their punishment.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Texas Democratic Debate

Well, I just watched the Democratic Presidential debate in Texas as my news for the day. I try to watch or listen to at least one news program each day. Some days, I listen to NPR. At other times, I drink in the wise words of Rush Limbaugh. Often, I watch the NBC Nightly News. And, when a Presidential debate is on, I count that as my news program for the day.

Hillary made a closing speech that was, quite frankly, moving. One of the moderators asked the candidates what struggles they have overcome. Hillary responded that almost everyone knows that she has been through struggles, but what she has gone through is not as rough as what many Americans experience each day. She referred specifically to wounded soldiers, but I'm sure she was also referring to other challenges that people face. She said that she has been privileged, and that she has long felt that she has a calling to help other people. She then stated that she does not know if she will win, but she will be all right if she does not, since she has the support of her family and friends. She just hopes that the American people will be all right.

I liked her closing speech for a variety of reasons. She admits that she has led a relatively charmed life, and that many of us little people have to go through struggles. She pointed out the necessity of loving our neighbors as ourselves. She also seemed to be trying to dispel the portrait of her that is popular in American society, the impression that Rush Limbaugh has of her: that she is a cold-hearted woman who has stuck around with Bill Clinton and his infidelities for a long time because she is desperate to be President, and she needs him for her political success. In her words, she isn't really power-hungry at all. She's like Reagan (except for the policies), who was content to work on his ranch and didn't need the Presidency to feel good about himself.

Is she for real? I can't judge her, but I tend to believe those who have observed Hillary behind the scenes, the ones who have concluded that much of what she says and does is for show. In Rewriting History, Dick Morris presents examples of how she has distorted who she really is to create a popular image. So I have a hard time accepting that she doesn't care if she wins or not, as if all she's really thinking about is us. But I also think that she sincerely wants to help people. She just looks to government as the best means to do so, and such an approach will prove costly and possibly ineffective if it is enacted.

Although Hillary gave a good closing statement, I don't think that will be enough to stem the tide of Barack Obama. Obama is a teflon candidate. He is like Reagan: you can accuse him of many things, but he is able to defuse them in such a way that no one cares about them any more. Reagan's approach was always to crack a joke, but Obama is different: he just comes across as a regular, down-to-earth, reasonable guy.

Take the debate this evening. Obama was asked about accusations that he has plagiarized the speeches of the Democratic Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick. Obama simply replied that the governor is on his staff and offered him advice on what to say. When Hillary then proceeded to criticize Obama as a plagiarizer, many in the crowd booed her. She came across as the bad guy (or girl), the one who is practicing politics as usual through her focus on trivialities.

As a conservative, I don't really agree with Obama on policy. I had to groan when he said that the government should be spending money on pre-kindergarten rather than the Iraq War, or when he suggested that we should give a bunch of money to Latin America. I mean, what's with all this eagerness to get kids under government control before they even reach kindergarten age? And why should the United States be the welfare agency of the whole wide world? But the way that Obama says things sounds so down-to-earth. He is like Reagan in that he has a far out, non-centrist ideology yet comes across as your next door neighbor. I noticed this quality in him when he debated Alan Keyes during the 2004 U.S. Senate race. Keyes was huffing and puffing and yelling and screaming and waving his hands, whereas Obama just spoke in his logical, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact manner. It will be hard to stick anything bad onto Barack Obama, since he doesn't come across as bad.

Hillary, however, has a fairly sullied reputation. To many, she is a conniver, someone who does things for show. She comes across as power-hungry, crooked, dishonest, and polarizing. Her attempt to take delegates from states where she wasn't even supposed to be on the ballot only reinforces (or validates) this image. She has more to overcome than Obama does, so I doubt that anything positive she did in the debate will help her beat him. I could turn out to be wrong, but that is my impression at the present time.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

In Defense of Older Commentaries

For my daily quiet times, I use at least four sources: The HarperCollins Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, E-Sword, and Rashi. The first two have modern historical-critical commentaries, but they don't always help me that much. They don't really address each and every verse and phrase, and they tend to speak in generalities. Unfortunately, I don't have other modern commentaries at my home. The Word Commentary Series on CD-Rom is too costly for me at this point, and the Anchor Bible series is more expensive now that Yale publishes it. Plus, scholarly books in general can be really expensive. Consequently, I read E-Sword and Rashi, which you can access on the Internet.

E-Sword contains a number of commentaries that the scholarly community generally scorns: Albert Barnes, Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and Jamiesson, Faussett, and Brown. These are old works, and they do not approach the Bible in a critical manner. They lack up-to-date knowledge of the ancient Near East and biblical languages. At the same time, E-Sword does have a condensed version of a commentary that many modern scholars actually do like: the nineteenth century commentary of Karl Keil and Franz Delitzsch. Keil-Delitzsch is old and Christian, but it is critical, at least for its time: it looks seriously at the language of the Hebrew Bible and its historical contexts. And, as I said, I also use Rashi, the eleventh century Jewish exegete who lived in France (and, unfortunately, tried to understand biblical Hebrew in light of his native French tongue).

I remember that Jim West scorned the use of these commentaries for biblical study (along with the works of certain modern conservative scholars). But even some evangelicals have turned down their noses on them. I go to Hebrew Union College, which has a lot of evangelical Christians in the graduate school. And I have heard some of them speak rather dismissively about Matthew Henry.

So why do I as a wannabe scholar use these commentaries, besides the fact that I cannot afford any modern ones at the present time? I have a few reasons:

1. I think that they are helpful in understanding the peshat of the biblical text. Peshat is the plain sense meaning that a biblical verse has within its immediate context. It looks at the verse in light of its section, the verses that come before and after it, the overall theme of the book, and the historical context that the book may specify. A question that a peshat exegete may ask is, "How does this verse speak to the people who originally heard it?" But peshat differs from the modern historical-critical method in that peshat does not really consider such factors as biblical diversity and the development of language. For most peshat exegetes, the Bible has one author, God, meaning that it is not a compilation of diverse human works from a variety of historical periods.

Indeed, these commentators do not always use peshat. They may tie a biblical verse to Jesus Christ rather restricting their interpretation to its immediate context. Sometimes, they make sections of the Bible into allegories about spiritual living, rather than taking them at face value. But there are many times when they do use the peshat approach, and, when they do so, their interpretations make a lot of sense.

There are many times when I read the Bible and come across a phrase that I do not understand. "What does this verse mean? How's it relate to its context? What point is it trying to make? And why does the author phrase his point in that particular way?" I ask myself and God. I look at my HarperCollins Study Bible and Jewish Study Bible, and, in many cases, they do not help me, since they don't try to explain every single verse and phrase. But my friends at E-Sword and Rashi do make such an attempt. And they often make a lot of sense.

And there have been times when I've also looked at modern commentaries, such as the Word Commentary (which is practically an encyclopedia of modern scholarship), the Anchor Bible commentaries, NICOT, and others. Maybe I'd be at the HUC library doing pieces of my daily quiet time during my study breaks. And, to be honest, those modern commentaries often say the same things as my E-Sword luminaries and Rashi. Or they may offer another interpretation that seems just as plausible, but their methodology is not radically different from that of the older exegetes. Like the older commentators, they try to figure out the point that the biblical passage is making in light of its immediate context. In some cases, they may mention an ancient Near Eastern custom or a detail about Ugaritic that the older commentators would not have known, but there are many times when they don't do that. As far as I'm concerned, in terms of peshat interpretation, the opinions of older commentators are just as valid as what they have to say.

2. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation, which addresses how Jewish and Christian exegetes have interpreted the Hebrew Bible. In terms of the time period of my field, I look at writings from at least the third century B.C.E. to the end of the medieval period. Rashi, of course, fits my field of study, since he was a major medieval Jewish commentator who included the views of the rabbis in his own exegesis. But, interestingly, my E-Sword friends are also helpful, even though they lived later than the historical periods that my field covers. John Gill was a Calvinist Baptist who lived in the eighteenth century, but he considers the views of the rabbis and medieval Jewish thinkers in his own interpretation of biblical verses. Perhaps he thought that the Jewish exegetes were automatically right because they had access to sources going back to Bible times. His approach is not correct from a scholarly perspective, since scholars aren't supposed to project later ideas onto earlier texts. But he is still an encyclopedia of Jewish exegesis, and that helps me as a student of the History of Biblical Interpretation.

A significant aspect of my field is the Greco-Roman period, and my E-Sword friends can help me there. Because they didn't really have access to the historical sources of the ancient Near East, they used what they had: Herodotus, Josephus, and other Greco-Roman sources. That is useful to me as a wannabe scholar who studies the Greco-Roman period. And, while biblical scholars certainly should prioritize ancient Near Eastern sources such as the Babylonian Chronicle and the accounts of Sennacherib in their consideration of biblical history, who is to say that Herodotus and Josephus have nothing to offer? After all, they claim in some cases to use ancient sources. Maybe they actually did so.

So I tend not to throw out books just because they are old. Granted, I try to remember that older books have their limitations because much has been discovered since their times. But I also think that they can offer valid opinions on what the biblical text means, and they can also be helpful to students of biblical interpretation.

The Deletion of Jim West's Blog

I want to express my sadness that Jim West's blog has been deleted. Although I disagree with Jim on political issues, there is a warm place in my heart for him, for he was the one who first introduced me to the blogging community. Not as many people would be reading me today if he had not done that, since he had the prominence and name-recognition that could draw people's attention to the blogs that he mentioned. I hope that he will find a way to start anew, although he probably feels demoralized right now. He is a prolific blogger, and he adds a lot of intellectual stimulation and fun to the discussion.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bye Bye, Fidel

Well, Fidel Castro has resigned from the Cuban Presidency today. You know, I wonder how that guy managed to stay in power for about five decades, considering how the United States unleashed all sorts of attacks on him throughout the years. The CIA even tried to burn his beard off so that he wouldn't look manly to the Cuban people. And the United States also had that famous economic embargo against Cuba.

And we opposed Castro for good reason. Sure, the guy was a dictator, but that's not the only reason we thought he was bad news. After all, we've backed dictators before when they've served our interests. Castro was also a problem because he tried to undermine us on an international scale. He supported our enemies during both the Cold War and also the War on Terror. During the Cold War, he worked to export "revolution" (Communist dictatorship) to Central and Latin America as well as Africa. And, during the War on Terror, he backed Saddam Hussein and worked with Hugo Chavez, the radical President of Venezuela, to create a block of leftist, anti-American governments in Central and Latin America. And what compounded the problem was that he was an anti-American force in our very own backyard. Neoconservatives like to say that we're fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we won't have to fight them here. Well, it didn't help to have an anti-American leader who practically was here, or at least he was close to here: he was 90 miles away from our shore.

But did sanctions actually work? Not really. After all, he remained in power all those years. I've come to believe that an effective way to bring freedom to countries with dictatorships is to give them a taste of what we have. Look at China. A lot of people there would love to be like us. And being able to eat at McDonald's in China certainly helps the situation, since the Chinese are becoming exposed to the choices that consumerism brings. Choice is the opposite of dictatorship. And when you give people some freedom, they will want more and more. Dictators will then find them harder to control.

As I've read some articles about Central America in the mainstream media over the last month, certain things have stood out to me. In my opinion, these points have challenged the typical leftist narratives about the region. Leftists always said that Castro sought American help and only formed a relationship with the Soviet Union when the U.S. turned him away. But a February 19, 2008 Associated Press article, "Fidel Castro Was Long in Anti-US Camp," documents that Castro opposed the United States long before the Bay of Pigs. Six months before he even took power, he wrote, "I am going to launch another, much longer and bigger war against them (the Americans). I realize now that this is going to be my true destiny." He also ridiculed the American way of life, including consumerism.

Another leftist myth is that Communist countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua were actually fine places to live during the Cold War. You see that sort of mindset even today, as Michael Moore lauds the Cuban health care system (though, interestingly, many who've experienced it first-hand have a slightly different perspective, to say the least). In most leftist narratives, those who wanted to overthrow Castro or Ortega were merely counter-revolutionaries. They didn't want freedom, nor did they care about the little guy. They just wanted to restore the dictatorships that the Communists successfully overthrew. They wanted to restore themselves to power.

But that was bogus. Sure, there were counter-revolutionaries who wanted to return to power, but they were not the only ones who resisted Communism in Central America. In Nicaragua, there were many Contras who were former Sandinistas. Also, in a February 9, 2008 Associated Press story, "Ortega's return stirs ex-Contras in US," we find that there are Contras now in the United States who are concerned that Ortega is pulling the same tricks that he did in the 1980's. According to the story, "What really disturbs these former Contras is Ortega's plan to revive Sandinista neighborhood watch committees, which became his eyes and ears during his first presidency. " And, although many of them live comfortable lives in the United States, they are working to ensure that Ortega doesn't start another dictatorship in Nicaragua; some are open to going back to Nicaragua to launch another armed resistance.

These people aren't trying to get back into power in Nicaragua. They don't want a return to the days of Somoza. Why would they want that? That was a long time ago! Plus, they're comfortable here. They are concerned right now for the same thing that motivated them in the 1980's: freedom.

The same goes for the Cubans who live in the United States. They don't oppose Castro because they long for the days of Batista. They are ardent opponents of Castro because they know that life for Cubans under him is a jail (except for those in the Cuban government, of course). Their passion is for freedom.

But I will say one good thing about Castro: he did oppose abortion.

Hopefully, Castro's resignation will allow Cuba to move in the direction of freedom. That would help the Cuban people as well as the security of the United States.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidents' Day 2008

Today is President's Day, and I try to comment on as many holidays as I can. So what do I get out of this particular day?

Well, I was thinking about the institution of the Presidency in general. George Washington could have been king, but he refused the offer. He said that the Americans did not defeat one King George to get another King George. That took a lot of character for him to say that. He definitely put his principles ahead of self-promotion in that instance. A lot of us may criticize authoritarianism or tyranny, but we wouldn't mind them if we were the ones calling the shots. But George Washington realized that authoritarianism was wrong, whether it was exercised by him or anyone else. He knew that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so he applied that principle to himself as well as society as a whole.

By and large, the founding fathers believed in limited government, even though they differed on where precisely the limits should be. The Federalists (e.g., Alexander Hamilton, John Adams) advocated a strong central government, whereas the Democratic-Republicans (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, James Madison) supported a weak national government and more power to the states. Specifically, the Federalists wanted the federal government to assume state debts, institute a national bank, impose high tariffs on imports, and encourage manufacturing through subsidies, whereas the Democratic-Republicans tended to favor state autonomy over a large federal role. Whatever their differences, the founding fathers agreed that the concentration of too much power into a single authority was a bad idea. The thought that it could lead to a loss of freedom, and they also wanted to protect their property from an over-zealous government.

In their desire to limit government authority, the founding fathers wrote three things into the U.S. Constitution. First of all, they delineated specific functions for the federal government, while reserving all other powers to the states and the people. Congress and the President were primarily to enact legislation that related to their Constitutional roles. This principle is explicitly stated in the Tenth Amendment. Second, they stipulated certain freedoms that the federal government was not to transgress, such as speech, worship, assembly, privacy, and firearm ownership. And, third, they divided the federal government into three branches--the legislative, the executive, and the judicial--preventing thereby the concentration of power into a single branch. Generally speaking, the three branches had to agree on things for them to get done (except when Congress overrode the President's veto), resulting in the likelihood that a lot would not get done. But the founding fathers probably did not deem that to be too much of a problem. For them, the greater problem was an unfettered and authoritarian government.

Limited government is bread-and-butter conservatism, or at least bread-and-butter classical liberalism. Since I am a conservative, the founding fathers' commitment to that principle is what I celebrate on this Presidents' Day, as I think about why our framers instituted the Presidency in the first place. Their goal was to prevent the concentration of power into a single authority. Of course, there is debate about whether or not the President is currently following the Constitution, or if the Constitution even demands rigid adherence when the public safety is at risk. In all debates, we should value the safety and welfare of the general public, but we should also keep in mind what the founding fathers considered a potentially greater threat to the American people: an authoritarian government.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

They See What They Want to See

When I was at one of my graduate schools, I attended a lecture on Genesis 3. I was talking with a Korean Christian after the lecture, and I was complaining to her about how it did not conform to the typical Christian interpretation. "Genesis 3 is about the fall of man and a Messiah who would come and smash the head of Satan," I said. "How can he not see that?" Since that time, I have learned that there is more than one way to interpret the text. But the response of that Korean Christian in that conversation has stayed with me until this day, even though I have applied her comment to a variety of different contexts: "He sees what he wants to see."

Today, I want to discuss how that is true of a lot of evangelicals: they see what they want to see.

Over the past few days, I've been talking about a comment that I heard in a college Bible study group that I once attended. The leader said that he was a Christian because he didn't want to be like non-Christians. For him, non-Christians were bitter, whereas Christians had inner peace.

As I said in my last two posts, there is some value to his statement. But there is also something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Essentially, he was seeing what he wanted to see. If he encounters a non-Christian with the presupposition that all non-Christians are deficient, then he will find deficiency in that person. No one is perfect, after all. He may have some of the same deficiencies himself. Stronger Christians than him may have them as well. But, in his judgment of people, he will find what he wants to find, since he believes that the glasses through which he views life is the God-given truth.

The fact is that there are atheists who are pretty much satisfied with life. And, conversely, there are Christians who can get bitter and disappointed because of the way things are going. Most of us, I'd venture to say, are a mixture of the two emotions. I can find inner peace, kindness, anger, and unforgiveness among both Christians and non-Christians. If I want to place anyone from these two groups in the best or the worst possible light, then I can find enough material to do so.

Plus, who says that all Christians have inner peace? Do all Christians have to wear the same phony, superficial, plastic smile? One thing I like about the Bible is that its authors and characters are real, something that I don't always find in the Christian world, where many people hide who they really are. For example, the Psalmist doesn't always walk around with a peaceful, easy feeling. He gets mad with God because of his experiences and the bad world around him. A psychologist would probably prescribe some medication to him if he were alive today. But, ironically, the same person who is honest about his despair can also display pure, genuine, enthusiastic joy. And he does so because he truly loves God and is thankful to him, not because some other Yahwist self-righteously tells him that despair is a sin.

Here's another area in which a lot of evangelicals see what they want to see: Whenever non-Christians get mad at Christians or Christianity, many evangelicals argue that their anger is rooted in their deeply-held conviction that Christianity is actually right. For example, I know a Christian who told us about a conversation he had with two homosexuals. The homosexuals were angrily putting down Christians and Christianity, and the Christian concluded that they did so because they knew deep-down that the penalty for their lifestyle was death (Romans 1:32). For him, the homosexuals were mad because they knew God's truth and were thus insecure. So, if a non-Christian agrees with a Christian, then that shows that the Christian is right. And, if the non-Christian angrily disagrees with the Christian, then that also shows that the Christian is right. How can you argue with that?

Also, Christians can get pretty angry too. And, ironically, atheists contend that Christians get mad because they are insecure in their faith, so this sort of argument appears to pop up on both sides. But many Christians justify their anger as righteous indignation. They are like Phinehas, who was so zealous for the glory of God that he angrily killed a few idolaters. So, in the eyes of many Christians, when non-believers are angry, that is because they are insecure. When Christians are angry, that's because they have righteous indignation. But who's to say that the non-Christians don't have righteous indignation of their own? Again, the evangelical who made his judgment about the homosexuals was seeing what he wanted to see.

So those are my observations. And maybe my perceptions themselves are colored with bias. Are there any lessons that one can derive from what I said?

Bible Meme

I've been tagged by Weird Thinkers for Bible Meme, so here it goes:

1. What translation of the Bible do you like best?
New American Bible. It's the best for leisure reading.
2. Old or New Testament?
Old Testament.
3. Favorite Book of the Bible?
Genesis.
4. Favorite Chapter?
Genesis 16 (God reaches out to fleeing Hagar).
5. Favorite Verse? (feel free to explain yourself if you have to)
I'm with Bryan here. Lately, Jeremiah 12:5 has been in my mind: "If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?" God tells Jeremiah that things won't get easier, so he should try to toughen up amidst his current circumstances.
6. Bible character you think you’re most like?
Jeremiah.
7. One thing from the Bible that confuses you?
Did the prophets envision eschatalogical paradise taking place in their own times? And, if so, were they wrong? And, in that case, how should we approach them as Scripture?
8. Moses or Paul?
Moses.
9. A teaching from the Bible that you struggle with or don’t get?
The whole faith and works issue. We're saved by grace through faith alone, yet we don't get into the good afterlife if we practice certain sins or fail to do good works. So are we really saved by grace through faith alone?
10. Coolest name in the Bible?
Nimrod.

I tag Charles Halton, Angela Erisman, K.W. Leslie, Pete Bekins, and Scott Gray .

Saturday, February 16, 2008

More on Atheism

I promised Scott Gray that I would take on evangelicals today, but I find that I have more to say about atheism. Some of it will overlap with what I said yesterday, and some of it will be different. Like some of my recent posts, it will have a lot of rambling, but it will hopefully be good, thought-provoking, insightful, edifying rambling.

When I was at that Bible study meeting--the one in which the leader said he was glad he was not a non-Christian--my mind turned to something specific: I thought about professors I knew who fought with one another for prominence in their departments. Most of these professors were atheists, agnostics, or not that religious.

Why is this important? Well, suppose that there is no God, and that this life is all there is. If that were my belief system, then I would want to get the most that I can out of this life. I would want to make my mark on the world rather than fading into obscurity. I'd be in continual competition with people as I pursued my desires. Also, since I wouldn't be satisfied with God or eternal things, I'd seek my thrills in what the temporal world has to offer (e.g., power, money, sex, prominence, admiration from others, etc.).

Of course, on some level, the above paragraph describes me anyway. It also fits other Christians. Let me draw on my daily quiet time to illustrate what I mean. I am reading the Book of Micah right now. Like a lot of the biblical prophets, Micah criticizes the false prophets of Israel. In Micah 3, Micah accuses them of being prophets-for-hire. They may indeed have had the gift of prophecy at some point, for v 6 promises that they will have no visions or revelations, which only makes sense if they once had these things. But, at some time, they decided to go for the gold. They did not speak truth to power, but they told the powerful what they wanted to hear, even though those very people were oppressing the poor. After all, the people with power had the money, so they could give the false prophets what they wanted: a comfortable lifestyle.

My point? This world was more real to the false prophets than God was, and so they tried to improve their temporal lot. And that is true with many people inside and outside of the body of Christ: we try to make our mark in this world. Sadly, a thought that enters my mind when I encounter people is, "How can this person help me?" And that's the way the false prophets were operating: they figured that the rich people could give them a comfortable lifestyle, whereas their lowly victims could not. And so they prophesied divine favor for the rich, even as they ignored the plight of the poor. They did not think that God could take care of them, since, as I said, the world around them was more real in their eyes than God.

So is God necessary for morality to exist? On some level, yes. On some level, no. Let me explain. I get annoyed with Christians who act as if a divine super-cop is the only possible basis for morality, for I believe that morality by itself has practical benefits. Whether there is a God or not, we would all feel better in a society in which people did not kill, steal, lie, or commit adultery, and chose instead to love and help one another. But a lot of us do not have this sort of long-term vision. I know I don't. A good society often appears to me to be an abstract and unattainable ideal, plus I usually do not think that anything little old me does can have grand consequences for society as a whole. And so I tend to act according to what benefits me at the moment, without regard for the bigger picture. So is a divine super-cop who enforces moral laws on an individual basis necessary for me to be moral? Yes, and I would say that this is true of many others as well.

Of course, I don't kill or steal, but there are times when I act with selfish calculation. And this brings me to another point: I often do not succeed in getting what I want. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church once gave a sermon on greed that caused me to think. He said that a poor person can be greedy if he thinks about wealth all the time and resents rich people. His covetousness is still there, even if he does not have what he wants. And that fits me to a T. I may not have all the power, money, or women I desire, but if I resent those who do have them, then my heart is attached to this world. And that is something that leads to hatred, strife, and jealousy. These things have a negative effect on others, and they also rob me of any peace of mind.

Here's another thought: I look at my life with Asperger's, and I blame God. I wonder why I had to be cursed with this sort of life. Come to think of it, why does anyone have to go through life with a handicap? But an atheist would not necessarily bemoan the unfairness of life. Since she does not believe in a God, she is not exactly expecting fairness. For her, the afflicted person simply has to endure the cards he's dealt, as he finds some way to move on.

So perhaps this is a positive aspect of atheism, and maybe I can somehow incorporate it into my Christianity. But, overall, I have problems with the atheistic worldview because it sees this life as all that there is. And, when one holds that perspective, he or she may tend to idolize this world. And once that happens, selfishness can result, along with its negative consequences.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My Personal Problems with Atheism

I was once at a college Bible study meeting, and its leader made an interesting point: "One reason I'm a Christian is that I don't want to be like non-Christians." To illustrate what he was saying, he told us that his girlfriend had a class with a prominent gay student, and that she had remarked that the student was "bitter." The leader didn't want to be bitter, however. He wanted to be joyful and at peace, which is what Christians are (in his mind).

I still have mixed reactions to this statement. Today, I'll say what I like about it. Here is what I can affirm on a positive note:

1. The statement puts atheists in their place. I've often heard atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians say something like, "Judging from the lifestyles of the Christians I've seen, I definitely don't want to be a Christian." They usually refer to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the nasty, hypocritical Christians they've encountered in day-to-day life to bolster their sentiment. Well, it's good to see the shoe put on the other foot, for once. Why should I want to be like non-believers? What makes them think they're so perfect?

2. Atheism would make me bitter too. "But you're already bitter," I can envision my readers observing. Fair enough, let me rephrase that. Atheism would make me more bitter than I currently am. If I had to believe that I was in this life alone, without the care of a loving God who is continually working things out for my good, then I would lose all hope. I'd have to rely on myself. Sure, I have talents, qualities, and a bit of charm, but there are a lot of times when I mess up. And, while I have a solid support system in my family, there are sometimes things that they can't really control. Consequently, I am reassured to believe that there is a powerful, benevolent being in the universe who is guiding my situation.

Also, life would seem so meaningless if this were all there is. In the atheist worldview, we are born, we live, and we die. And that's it! We can experience fellowship with our family and our friends, but they too will eventually pass, sometimes sooner than we may expect. If this is all there is, then we won't be able to enjoy them forever. What is the point?

"Well, you should enjoy yourself and your loved ones while there's still time," I can hear atheists saying. "You must live this life to the fullest." And that is indeed something to contemplate, for I certainly don't want to use the afterlife as an excuse not to take advantage of what this life has to offer, while I still can. But not everyone makes the right decisions in this life. Should someone who made the wrong decisions have to go to his deathbed with a life that is totally wasted, without any hope of making things right? What about those who couldn't fully enjoy life because of circumstances beyond their control (e.g., living in an impoverished country, abuse, etc.)? And even when we live this life to the fullest, many of us don't want that full life to come to an end.

And, if all that exists is what I can see around me, then things are pretty bleak, not only for me, but for many others as well. From my own perspective, Asperger's is a hard life. There's a lot of social isolation that comes with it, even (or especially) when I'm around people. Atheists may tell me to stop trusting God and look instead to a human community. Look, communities are great, but they don't always satisfy me the same way that they do for neurotypical people. I don't necessarily view groups as warm, loving, accepting places. And other people besides myself have problems, such as poverty, infidelity, abuse, war, post-traumatic stress, and the list goes on and on. So thank God that this life is not all there is!

So these are my problems with atheism. I wouldn't be surprised if atheists were bitter. If I had to believe that everything hinges on me making the right move, that all of the wonderful people, places, and things I've experienced are only temporary, and that this hard life is all there is, then I'd go crazy. Christianity at least offers some hope.

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