Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ruthie's Brilliant Idea

I'm still in the eighth season of 7th Heaven. I don't know what it is about that show, but it does make me think!

On today's episode, Ruthie Camden and her boyfriend, Peter, are working on a class project for Presidents' Day. (I take it they don't get the day off!). They come up with an idea: Everyone else in the class will be presenting reports on how great Washington and Lincoln were. Why can't they do something different--something that will stand out, impress their teacher, and get them an "A"? Peter points out that the media love to bash Clinton and Bush, so maybe they can create a fictitious old newspaper that treats Washington and Lincoln in the same way. And, if they can't find anything in the library, they'll make something up. They're in a hurry, after all, since the project is due the next day!

As I listened to their conversation, I thought that their idea was brilliant. We tend to idolize the founding fathers, but they weren't necessarily idolized when they were alive. They had their critics! So what is wrong with exploring other perspectives on American history?

But Ruthie's teacher hates the idea. She threatens to take Ruthie and Peter to the principal. Eric Camden gives them a lecture on how great Washington and Lincoln were. And so they give a revised paper, one that praises the two Presidents. As they read their paper, it sounds pretty banal. But then I see why they'll get an "A": standing beside them are Eric, Annie, Kevin, and Lucy, dressed as George, Martha, Abe, and Mary Todd (respectively).

Their initial idea impressed me, on some level. Why? Because I've had a long flirtation with alternative interpretations of history. For example, my history textbooks always presented FDR as a great President, but the right-wing books that I read called him a socialist. In elementary school, I read encyclopedia articles about the founding fathers, and the anti-Federalist position made more sense to me. After all, it believed in a weak central government, and that was my ideological orientation at the time: less government means more freedom. And, since Washington was somewhat of a Federalist, I guess I was on the non-Washingtonian end of the spectrum (retrospectively speaking).

As far as Lincoln goes, I've read articles by Thomas DiLorenzo, an economist at Loyola College who loves to bash Honest Abe (only that's not what he calls him). For DiLorenzo, Lincoln was an authoritarian who dramatically expanded the power of the federal government. His warmongering led to a loss of civil liberties, a trend that DiLorenzo sees today. (So I guess Tom's not a Bushite conservative!)

DiLorenzo is often associated with the neo-Confederate movement, and that gives people bad vibes. So does DiLorenzo believe that slavery was a good idea? As far as I can see, the answer is "no." According to DiLorenzo, Lincoln was not always anti-slavery, even as President. In DiLorenzo's view, the Civil War wasn't even about ending slavery. Rather, the North wanted to keep the Union together to preserve all that revenue the South was bringing in. In neo-Confederate thought, slavery was on its way out, anyway. For people like DiLorenzo (and Ron Paul), there didn't need to be a war to end that institution!

I'll leave it to the historians to settle those issues. I'm just saying that there is more than one way to look at the past. I wish Peter and Ruthie had read some DiLorenzo (assuming his books were in their local library). Instead, they made things up about Washington and Lincoln.

While part of me liked Ruthie's idea, part of me could identify with the teacher and Eric Camden. There was a quality about Washington and Lincoln. Washington chose not to be king, even though he could have pulled it off. I mean, he had widespread support! He'd just led his people in war. And Lincoln wanted to forgive the South after defeating it. "With malice toward none, with charity for all," he said, demonstrating his Christian convictions.

What makes America a great nation is that it comes from good stock. Great people founded it on the basis of noble ideas. And children in American schools should receive a positive vision of what America is all about. What's more, we are in desperate need of real heroes. From a certain point of view, tearing down our founding fathers is the last thing that we should do.

In the 1964 right-wing classic, None Dare Call It Treason, John Stormer attacks the American educational system as leftist. He cites with disapproval a history textbook, Todd and Curti's America's History, which states the following about George Washington:

"Outwardly, Washington seemed to most people somewhat cold and overdignified. After his death, American patriots developed a myth of his godlike qualities...(pp. 184)."

Stormer then quotes J. Edgar Hoover, who denounces the assault on American heroes and patriotism (172).

Overall, I got a lot of patriotism in my elementary school. Every morning, we said the Pledge of Allegiance (except for the Jehovah's Witness boy, who just stood). We sang patriotic songs in music class. We even put on a play about the U.S. Constitution, in which I recited the preamble. (I didn't know what all the words meant, but at least I could pronounce them!) In fifth grade, my teacher told us that America is the best country on the face of the earth, while the Soviet Union is a land of atheism and slavery. I definitely learned about America's greatness when I was growing up!

In middle school, we got the same rosy picture, but with a little more nuance. In my eighth grade history class, our teacher was showing us the George Washington miniseries, with Barry Bostwick and Patty Duke. On it, George was looking at Sally Fairfax with a shy, entranced, bumbling look. (As many readers may know, George supposedly had a relationship with Sally Fairfax, even when he was married to Martha. And Sally was married to someone else during their alleged romance!) A girl in my class observed, "I think George likes Sally!" My teacher chuckled and said, "Yeah, George and Sally had quite a relationship!" And this teacher was about as Republican as you could get!

And so our founding fathers had qualities that embody what this nation is all about. And, yet, they had their flaws as well. But doesn't that make them more admirable? At least it means they were real people.

7th Heaven is somewhat of a conservative show. More than that, it's a cheery conservative show. On the episode I saw yesterday about the Iraq War, the pro-war side got the last word! So why am I unhappy about that? Didn't I get sick of liberals always getting the last word on The West Wing? And you all know my objections to Eli Stone! Maybe I'm just too saturated with the liberalism of the entertainment industry. I expect every show to cover politics the way that Norman Lear did, and that's not always the case. And that may be a good thing!

From the Library...

I went to the library today and checked out some books.

I love going to the library. I have plenty of books at home, but there is something magical about going to the library and being surprised by what I'll find. What book will grab me? What new area of knowledge will I pursue? It's quite an adventure!

Well, today, I checked out four books. It seemed that everywhere I turned, there was a book that looked interesting. Some days, nothing seems to pique my interest. But, today, I had a hard time making a choice on what to check out.

I settled on four books:

1. Michael John Carley, Asperger's from the Inside Out (New York: Penguin, 2008). Michael John Carley is the executive director of GRASP, The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership. I attended GRASP meetings when I was in New York. To be honest, my experience was rather mixed. I liked some of the people there, but I felt that the meetings were somewhat of a whine-fest: they focused more on the problems of Asperger's rather than what to do about them. But this book actually does offer solutions and recommendations, and that is why I want to read it.

It helps to get Michael John Carley's overall perspective. At the meetings, there were things he said that offended me. As I read his book, I get to place those comments within a broader context, and that corrects some misunderstandings I may have had. I also like his account of why he is involved in Asperger's issues. He said that he wants to create an inclusive society for his son, who also has Asperger's Syndrome. And he recognizes in retrospect that he has dodged a lot of social bullets, so he wants to help those who are not so fortunate.

I only read the first chapter, and I see that GRASP has changed somewhat since I went there. It's been four years! Some of the stories are familiar to me, but others are not. For example, GRASP no longer uses the phrase "high-functioning autism," for we don't know exactly how well the "low-functioning" people function. Maybe they can understand the world around them, so why take the chance of offending them if that is the case? I like this one quote: "But too often, more challenged individuals are thought of as useless when it is we who so far have been unable to tap into what's there" (24).

2. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Making War to Keep Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). Jeane Kirkpatrick was Reagan's UN ambassador. Her contribution to Reaganite thought was that she advocating America siding with anti-Communist regimes that weren't exactly democratic (e.g., El Salvador, the Philippines, South Africa, etc.). In her mind, these countries could become democracies if we worked with them, plus their help would be useful in the Cold War. So why write them off?

Kirkpatrick is usually labeled a neo-con. My understanding of neo-cons is that they think America should spread democracy throughout the world, through war, if necessary. But I just read her chapter on Haiti, and that doesn't seem to be what she believes. She thinks that Clinton's invasion of Haiti was a waste. Haiti wasn't hurting other countries. It wasn't exactly suited for democracy at the time, since it had economic troubles and a tradition of authoritarian leaders. Heck, propping up Aristide wasn't exactly a pro-democratic move, for he was a dictator. I don't think that she dismisses the possibility of democracy in that country, for she advocates helping Haiti improve its economy and literacy rate as a necessary step in that direction. But she's not exactly a trigger-happy warmonger, contrary to most stereotypes of neo-cons.

I've heard that she was critical of Bush II's war in Iraq, so I'm curious to read what she has to say about Saddam Hussein and the best way to deal with him.

3. Bill Kauffman, Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan, 2008). There's always been a soft spot in my heart for anti-war conservatism. You'll notice that Lew Rockwell is one of the links under my list of web sites! I became a conservative by reading about FDR. Here was a man who expanded the power of the federal government, in terms of both the welfare state and also the national security state. And conservatives during the 1930's called him on it. Overall, I support the Iraq War, though I question whether Bush has fought it in the right way. But I can sympathize with those who see war as incompatible with freedom, and who simply do not think a loss of life is absolutely necessary.

4. John Townsend, Loving People: How to Love and be Loved (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Christians continually tell me to love people, but I don't know how. Maybe this book can help. I used to listen to Dr. Townsend on the radio, and, to be honest, I didn't care much for his program. I thought that he put people down. Evangelicals tend to like the idea of rebuke. They consider it tough love--telling people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. But there is a certain practicality to that approach, which I may find useful (even if it's painful at first). As I thumbed through the book, this quote stood out to me: "We cannot change anything about ourselves simply by trying harder or by will power. If we could, we would not have needed God's grace in the first place" (119). That sounds pastoral. Plus, heaven knows I've been frustrated in my attempts to change! This book also looks like it has stories and anecdotes, and that makes any book entertaining, even if it may have the same banal evangelical cliches. So I'll give this book a shot!

I'm reading a chapter a day. First, I'm reading Carley and Kirkpatrick. Then, I'll read Kauffman and Townsend. And anything I find interesting, I'll be sure to pass on to you. Stay tuned!

That Really Stinks!

I was reading through the blog, Asperger Square 8, and I read some experiences that made me think, "That would really stink!"

Bev, who is the author of the blog, says the following in her article, Autistic Superpowers: Invisibility:

"I am waiting in line. 'Can I help you?' the woman behind the counter asks. I’m about to step up and give my order when I realize she’s talking to the guy behind me! I’ve been 'overlooked' enough times by sales persons to have gotten used to it. That doesn’t mean I accept it, however. 'Excuse me,' I say, 'I think I was here first'. The counter person seems a bit flustered and redirects her attention but doesn’t apologize or anything."

That really stinks! There have been many social situations in which I've felt invisible, but I would be really upset if an employee of some institution treated me that way. These people are paid to be nice to me!

Then, codeman38 comments:

"What's particularly frustrating is when I say something and it goes completely ignored, then someone else repeats the same thing almost verbatim and is given credit for it."

That would really stink! There have been many times when I've felt as if people haven't listened to me, but giving someone else credit for something I said first? I'd be upset!

Probably the closest I got to that was at DePauw University, in an honor scholars' class. We were discussing Plato's Apology and Crito, particularly how Socrates chose to disobey and yet honor the law. I mentioned Thoreau, who refused to pay the poll tax but submitted to the state's penalty out of respect for the governing authorities. Then, minutes later, this one young woman said, "Well, hasn't anyone here read Thoreau, who disobeyed the law but accepted the authority of the state?" I was slightly upset, but, fortunately, no one ooohed and aaaahed at her comment. That made me feel better!

Life doesn't always work out neatly. It isn't necessarily fair, in the sense that people get the treatment they deserve. If there is a neat, divine plan to everything, it doesn't seem to fit with our standards of neatness, at least not all of the time.

Television sometimes portrays this messiness, and sometimes it doesn't. For example, one thing that annoys me about 7th Heaven is that people find dating relationships really easily. Yesterday, Martin's dad--a soldier in Iraq, played by Kenny from Picket Fences (I knew he looked familiar!)--returned to America and met Roxanne. Within seconds, they are making out! Does real life work that way?

I listen to Joel Osteen, and he talks about God bringing promotion to our lives. For Joel, God will ensure that we are in the right place at the right time, so we should trust him for advancement. We don't need to suck up to our boss!

I heard this spiel in evangelicalism long before I even knew about Joel Osteen. "God has a plan to prosper you," people told me. And there are biblical examples of this, such as Joseph. But does life really work that way? I have a few books on social skills that my therapist recommended, and their authors talk about how they missed out on many opportunities for advancement because of poor social skills or an inability to promote themselves effectively. So does my success depend totally on me, and not God? Is God working my life out for good? Or does he expect me to work my life out for good, as if that's even a sure thing?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Righteous Warrior, by William A. Link

I recently finished William Link's Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008). I'll be taking it back to the library tomorrow, so I want to write about it while I still have it with me.

This book didn't knock my socks off, but I still enjoyed it. What is my impression of Jesse Helms now that I've read it? It's mixed. And, ironically, the things that repel me are also the things that attract me. As I read the book, Helms struck me as self-righteous in the sense that he projected an attitude of "How dare you challenge me!" He sunk low in the political gutter in his attacks on his opponents. He could be somewhat of a bully, for he played a significant role in a well-funded conservative machine that tried to get its way, no matter what.

And, yet, his strong will is admirable. He didn't care what anyone thought about him, even when he was in a tiny minority. He boldly challenged Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, and they all saw him as a force to be reckoned with. And, surprisingly, he got some legislative victories, often against heavy odds. He knew how to obstruct what he didn't like, sneak in what he did like, and (more importantly, for him) force elected officials to take sides on controversial issues. And, on many occasions, because a lot of Americans are rather conservative, the side that the Senators chose was his. Jesse Helms was a one-man army.

Link's prologue is telling. It's entitled "The Two Faces of Jesse Helms." Its thesis is that, although Helms is known as a hard-nosed conservative ideologue, he had a human side as well. A survey of 1,200 staffers and Capitol Hill employees rated him as one of the nicest Senators. He genuinely cared for his staffers, and he continually helped his North Carolina constituents, something even his political enemies admired. He viewed himself as a public servant, resisting many of the perks that came with being a Senator. Overall, he was a low-key guy. He was a tee-totaller, he loved Little House on the Prairie, and he was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He even adopted a boy with cerebral palsy.

Probably what is most controversial about him is his record on race. His political friends were segregationists. As a media commentator, he was critical of the civil rights movement, Brown v. the Board of Education, and civil rights legislation. Critics accused him of using racist sub-texts in his political campaigns. Yet, he did not view himself as a racist. He thought that African-Americans actually liked segregation, and that all these outsider activists were agitating the situation. For him, whites and blacks could arrive at a mutual solution to racial conflict, without agitation or outside federal interference. While he voted against membership for a black man in his local church, he said that he had no problem worshipping with people of other races: he just didn't like people coming in to start trouble. He related that he was friends with a lot of black people, particularly Capitol Hill employees. James Meredith served on his Senate staff for a time. And, through all of this, Helms said he couldn't understand why a lot of African-Americans didn't like him.

Overall, the book was liberal, yet respectful. It reminded me of Lou Cannon's books on Reagan. Link disagreed with Helms on a variety of issues, and he pointed out errors in many of Helms' statements and stories. He also depicted Helms as somewhat of a racist. Yet, he admired Helms' political talent, tenacity, and tender humanity. One thing Helms wasn't, and that's boring.

The most touching part of the book relates to Helms' relationship with Bono, the legendary U-2 musician. Bono was concerned about hunger and AIDS in Africa, and he took special care to reach out to conservative politicians, such as John Kasich and Jesse Helms. Several of Bono's friends warned him about conservatives, but Bono's stance about them was simple: they're Christians, they follow Jesus, and so, of course, they'll be concerned about the poor, the sick, and the outcast.

You couldn't imagine two people who were more different: Helms, the old Senator who didn't listen to rock music, and Bono, with his colorful clothing and sunglasses. But Bono told Helms about the suffering in Africa. In Bono's recollection, Helms cried when he saw the pictures of starving children. That is not surprising, for Helms (like Reagan) was often quick to act when he became aware of an individual's suffering. He opposed the Panamanian government, for example, after seeing pictures of someone who was tortured and killed in that country. "He's a religious man," Bono recalled, "so I told him that 2,103 verses of Scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once--and it's not about being gay or sexual morality, but about poverty."

Still, Helms remained a conservative. He continued to oppose foreign aid that relied on inefficient bureaucracies and funneled the money to corrupt foreign governments. For Helms, giving the aid to private charities or directly to people who needed it was the better option. And Helms maintained his strong opposition to the homosexual lifestyle.

I admire Helms, whatever his flaws. And, yet, for me, the hero of the book is Bono. He chose to reach out to people who were different from him, appealing to what was good and noble in their own worldviews. And, in the process, numerous people in Africa got helped.

Desperate Housewives: Bree's Faith Life

In a recent post, I said the following:

"I've often complained about the entertainment industry's anti-religious slant. So many times, it depicts religious characters as kooks. I think of Bree on Desperate Housewives. She is probably the only character on that show who believes in God and holds to biblical principles, yet the program presents her as a social snob. "

Well, unbeknownst to me at the time, an episode I had taped a few weeks before actually related to Bree's faith.

Lynette, another desperate housewife, had a lot of questions. She had just survived cancer. A tornado had recently hit Wysteria Lane. Some lived, and some died. And Lynette wondered why.

She always saw her neighbors going to church. Gabrielle attends mass. I thought that Eedie was Catholic as well, since she always goes to confession, yet she was heading off to church with her Bible, so I may have been wrong on that. (Just kidding, mom!)

But Bree always struck Lynette as the most religious, and so she wanted to go to church with her. And, on some level, her impression was right. Of all the desperate housewives, my worldview is probably most similar to Bree's. She didn't like her son's homosexuality, or her daughter engaging in pre-marital sex. She herself tried to save sex for marriage, sometimes successfully, and sometimes (if my memory serves me correctly) not. And she is a Republican. She met her first husband at a College Republican meeting, and, on their first date, they talked late into the night about the evils of big government. And so she's not only a Republican: she is a conservative Republican, the type who favors limited government (yes, there are other kinds!).

But she's also somewhat of a perfectionist, not to mention a social snob. She always cares about what the neighbors think. Social advancement is her drive in life, and she'll go to almost any length to get it. She's also a recovering alcoholic. On one episode, Lynette lined up all of the wine bottles that Bree had consumed in the past week, right in front of Bree's house (where the neighbors could see them). Lynette left Bree a note: "Do you still think you don't have a problem?" As I watched that episode, I looked at all of the beer cans and bottles sitting beside my trash bucket. "Maybe I have a problem too," I thought. But Desperate Housewives' depiction of recovery wasn't entirely accurate, for Bree had a male sponsor in AA. Ordinarily, women have women sponsors.

And so I have a soft spot in my heart for Bree, even though there are things about her that I cannot stand.

But, anyway, Lynette goes to church with Bree and Orson (Bree's husband). Bree is trying to suck up to the pastor because she wants to be the chairman of some committee. And so she's not too happy when Lynette asks the pastor questions about the problem of evil--right during the service. Later, Bree convinces Lynette to go to another church. And, when Lynette does that, Bree's pastor says that he misses Lynette and her questions. And so, predictably, Bree tries to convince Lynette to come back to her church.

There was one touching scene: When Bree came over to talk Lynette into attending another church, Lynette was reading a Bible that she had just purchased. It had all of these bookmarks, and she said she had tons of questions. That warmed my heart! Here's someone desperately looking for answers, someone who is hungry for God.

Would she find answers in Bree's church? I don't know. The pastor was giving her the typical apologetic spiel: evil exists because of human free will. That prompted Lynette to ask about natural evil, which is not directly caused by human choices, and she specifically mentioned the tornado that had recently hit Wysteria Lane. She was eager to learn, but she wasn't about to accept just any answer. So who knows? Maybe Bree's church group could offer her some good food for thought, as she, the pastor, and others wrestled over these very real issues. (I know, I'm talking like they're real people. This happens every now and then, so don't be alarmed!)

Lynette was not the only one who gained faith on that episode, for Bree did too. At the end of the show, both she and Lynette had a grand old time discussing the Bible. Before, Bree's faith life was something she took for granted: she had certain assumptions about God and morality, but she had never really thought about them in depth. And church for her was kind of like a social club: she tried to be in the "in" crowd whenever she attended.

But, often, questions can be a sign of a genuine faith life, for can we truly say that we're involved in something if we do not reflect on it?

Watching 7th Heaven with Asperger's

A lot of times, when I watch shows, I can read people's facial expressions. That's probably because they make the expressions so obvious that they're hard to miss: they exaggerate them. And then there are times when I detect that a character feels a certain way, but I really can't specify what. In those cases, I go to wikipedia or some sort of episode guide, and it tells me what the character is feeling.

But when I was watching 7th Heaven yesterday (I'm in the eighth season), it reminded me a little more of the social ambiguity of real life. Okay, there's this character named Peter, who is Ruthie Camden's boyfriend. His dad is an alcoholic who left him and his mom three years ago, and now, all sobered up, he wants to become involved in Peter's life again. The impression we're supposed to have of Peter's dad is that he's a real jerk: he is blunt, sarcastic, and somewhat selfish.

And yet, we pity the man. Eric Camden says that Peter's dad desperately wants to be loved, and that's why he wants his son back in his life. And, ultimately, the one Peter's dad hates most is himself. But he finds healing at the end of the episode, when he and the Camdens work with people who have mental retardation. Peter's dad paints a picture, and it accidentally gets ripped in the car. When he goes into a tirade about his own stupidity, the people with mental retardation tell him how beautiful the picture is and give him a group hug. It was a touching scene!

Well, Peter's dad meets members of the Camden family, along with people who for some reason like to hang around at the Camdens' (to the point of actually living at their house). Peter's dad astutely says, "This is like an orphanage!" And he's right. It is. But, anyway, Peter's dad meets Martin, whose dad is in Iraq. He says to Martin, "Hey, aren't you the one whose dad is a Marine? When are you signing up?" Martin coldly replies, "What do you have against the Marines?"

In my eyes, Peter's dad was just trying to be friendly. I didn't hear him denigrate the Marines. Why did Martin assume that he did? That whole scene reminded me of what goes through my mind on numerous occasions: "What did I say?"

Of course, this is the Hallmark Channel, which likes to delete stuff that it deems inappropriate, so maybe we didn't get the full thrust of his comment.

But that whole incident reminded me of what I go through. In social situations, I have to say something, because otherwise people will ignore me. And I want to be witty like the people around me. Yet, I don't know right then and there what to say. And I don't have too much time to think about it, since, before you know it, the conversation has moved on to something else, and any comment I could have made becomes irrelevant (I hope this sounds stressful!). And so I say something, and people get offended.

That seemed to me to be the problem that Peter's dad had: he just didn't know what to say.

In any case, I'm looking forward to today's episode. Roxanne, a cop, gets into a fight with Martin's aunt over the Iraq war. I seriously wonder who will be for it, and who will be against it. Roxanne loves justice. She actually rejoiced when her cop dad shot a man who had killed her mother. She is not a bleeding heart liberal, by any stretch of the imagination.

But Martin's aunt has a brother in Iraq, and I can see her supporting what her brother is doing. But I can't take that totally for granted, for I know a mother with a son in Iraq, and she absolutely hates George W. Bush. She said her son jokes about the seven dollar Halliburton hamburgers!

This is the first episode in which there is debate about Bush's war policies. In a previous episode, Ruthie was corresponding with an American soldier in Afghanistan, and the consensus pretty much was that he was fighting to keep America safe. Robbie and Simon had a discussion in which they both agreed that war is sometimes necessary.

But, eventually, we get tired of war. And I'm interested to see how today's episode deals with that.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Eli Stone: Turning a Motif On Its Head

I know it's late, but I want to comment on the season finale of Eli Stone.

One of the subplots went like this: Toby from The West Wing (only, here, his name wasn't "Toby") came to Eli and wanted his representation. He had cancer, and he wanted to kill himself, or discontinue chemo--something that ended his life. And he claimed that God told him to do this. As a result, he felt a lot of peace. Every now and then, you could see the Toby we've all come to know and love. In one scene, he did one of his customary "Toby" tirades--you know, in which he starts off speaking softly, then gets louder and madder as he approaches the end of his statement. But, overall, he came across as a serene person, much like Eddie Murphy on Holy Man.

His wife was a rabbi, and she wanted him to fight for his life. She based her conviction on her love for him, of course, but she also appealed to the teachings of Judaism, particularly the value it places on life. The case concerned whether or not Toby was fit to make his own decision. Was he sane, or was he crazy for claiming that God spoke to him?

Well, Eli gave a speech about the importance of faith and how the judge should not condemn Toby as insane. After all, wouldn't that declare all faith to be insane? And, in the end, the judge agreed with Eli. Toby died at the end of the episode. And, in the other room, Eli Stone was fighting for his life, for he was having an operation that would remove his vision-causing tumor (I think--I wasn't following the show as well as I should!).

I felt the same way about this episode as I felt about the sex ed one. The show was trying to inspire me, and I wanted to be inspired, but it wasn't doing it for me because I disagreed with its message. I'm sorry, I simply could not get inspired by condom-based sex education. I want abstinence taught in school sex ed, and abstinence alone! And, similarly, I have a hard time associating the legitimacy of faith with devaluing one's own life.

What I like about Touched by an Angel and 7th Heaven is that they have inspiring speeches that agree with my beliefs. Touched by an Angel talks about God's love, and Andrew once gave a good defense of Intelligent Design. I didn't care much for the anti-Joe McCarthy episode, but that was the exception rather than the rule. And, although Eric Camden is a liberal Protestant and a Democrat, he still promotes God, country, family, and (this one's important) abstinence before marriage.

But the episode of Eli Stone about Toby's (direct or indirect) suicide was, well, twisted. Linking faith in God with suicide? I have problems with that.

We've seen the motif of the supernatural entering the courtroom before. Miracle on 34th Street was probably its inspiration. Touched by an Angel once had an episode in which Monica rested her testimony on her status as an angel. In both cases, the court had to rule on the legitimacy of the supernatural.

I like the motif, but I don't like what Eli Stone did with it. It reminded me of the value of Scripture and centuries of tradition in communicating the will of God. Toby's rabbi wife appealed to that. Toby, by contrast, appealed to a personal revelation. Ordinarily, in my view, the latter should be subservient to the former. Christianity at least claimed to be grounded in what came before. I guess that's the Edmund Burke conservative in me talking.

Some Loose Ends on Religious Pluralism

I just want to add a few more thoughts on More Than One Way? I didn't know where to fit them in my other posts, so I'll put them here.

1. Geivett/Phillips respond to accusations that they are proof-texting. That reminds me of an incident I had at Harvard. I was in my senior seminar, and my project was to attempt to show that Isaiah 53 predicts Jesus Christ. (Unlike with my undergrad thesis, I don't look back on this one with that much favor). I was trying to set forth my theology using Scriptural support, and one of the students snidely asked, "And what is your basis for what you're saying? Prooftexts?"

But I wonder what the basis is for liberal theology. If they're not relying on the Bible, then where are they getting their ideas about God and his purposes? And why should we trust their ideas as reliable? My paper was not the best thing I've ever written, but I see nothing wrong with using prooftexts.

2. That brings me to an interesting McGrath quote:

"Most Western religious pluralists appear to work with a concept of God that is shaped by the Christian tradition, whether this is openly acknowledged or not. For example, they often appeal to the notion of a gracious and loving God. Yet this is a distinctively Christian notion of God, grounded and substantiated in Jesus Christ...As Gavin D' Costa has pointed out, John Hick's concept of God, which plays a significant role in his pluralist worldview, has been decisively shaped by Christological considerations, whether he realizes or is prepared to admit this. 'How credibly,' he asks, 'can Hick expound a doctrine of God's universal salvific will if he does not ground this crucial truth in the revelation of God in Christ, thereby bringing Christology back onto center stage?'" (168).

I have a slight problem with this quote. Does a God of love exist only in Christianity? I don't think so. Judaism has it too. Also, Clark Pinnock refers to "the Saiva Siddhanta literature of Hinduism, which celebrates a personal God of love, and the emphasis on grace that I see in the Japanese Shin-Shu Amida sect" (110). Of course, McGrath has a point when he says that Eastern religions may draw on Christianity in certain areas (he mentions grace), and I don't know enough about Hinduism or Japanese religion to determine if this is true of them. But something tells me that other religions have some idea of God's beneficence, even if it may not be as high as Christianity's.

Overall, however, I appreciate McGrath's point in that quote. Liberal theologians are usually getting their ideas from the Bible. And, if they see the Bible as authoritative on God's gracious nature, why can't they accept the rest of it? We need some foundation for theology, here!

3. We always talk about those who have never heard the Gospel. Geivett-Phillips say that those who never heard would not accept the Gospel if they actually did hear it. But, as McGrath points out, the New Testament presents an example of people who didn't hear the Gospel but would have believed had they heard it. Matthew 11:21-24 states:

"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you" (NRSV).

Geivett/Phillips essentially blow this off. They say: "Our own view is that Jesus' reference to the people of Tyre and Sidon is hyperbolical. His point is not that they would actually have believed if they had been in the same situation as his first-century audience, but that his first-century audience was even more obstinate than these ancient peoples who were known for their rebellion against God" (259-260).

Jesus doesn't mean they would have believed? Then why's he say that they would have believed? Maybe Jesus says what he means and means what he says. Why are some conservatives so literal on some interpretations of Scripture (as are Geivett/Phillips in their focus on even the smallest details of certain verses), but so loose on others?

4. Clark Pinnock says the following:

"I fear that restrictivism may prevent people from seeing truth and goodness that result from God's grace working in other people and hide from them the spirit of Jesus, who regards deeds of love done for the poor as done for him (Matt. 25:40). He has a generous spirit and can detect the seed of faith evidenced in good works in those who are unaware of any relation to himself" (254).

I'm not sure if I agree totally with Pinnock's view here, since Paul says that we're saved by faith in Christ, not good works. Pinnock has to deal with that, on some level! But I like his picture of God and Christ as persons who look for the best in people. It reminds me of something I read in Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew: When Jesus healed a person, he often complimented the healed person by pointing out his faith. Jesus returned the compliment! There are plenty of Bible passages that condemn humanity as sinful. But does God ever seek and acknowledge any good in human beings? And how should we be in our relationship with others? Should we see them as hopelessly corrupt, or should we look for the good in them? Which approach will improve our relationships with other people?

These are just my thoughts. Number 4 is not entirely orthodox, but it's something I've often wondered about.

Geivett/Phillips' Exclusivist View

Today, I'll point out some interesting things in Part 4 of Zondervan's More Than One Way? This section presents the exclusivist view, the belief that only those who hear and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be saved. The main article for that section is by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, called Geivett/Phillips throughout the book.

I don't want to dig my academic grave in case I meet Geivett or Phillips for a job interview. This book is dated to 1995, and they're probably big names by now. But, back then, they were young. They had made names for themselves at a Wheaton conference, and they were also published authors on religious pluralism. But I doubt that they were as famous as John Hick, Clark Pinnock, and Alister McGrath. So I think that they were really trying to compensate for that. They wanted to prove themselves.

Consequently, their article and responses are longer than those of the other authors. They have lots of footnotes. They use words like "veridically" (was that on the GRE?). Their writing style is rather technical.

I didn't really enjoy reading their responses to the other authors, and I was dreading their main article. But, surprisingly, my reading of it went by pretty fast. It was neat, Scriptural, and somewhat enjoyable.

Basically, they are your typical apologists. Their argument goes like this: God exists because the universe had a beginning and thus needed a cause. There is evidence that the universe has a design that allows for human existence. If things were only slightly different, life would not exist, showing there's a creator who cares about humanity. And there is evidence that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, which validates the Gospels.

Once Geivett/Phillips validate the Gospels (or, more accurately, refer us to other authors who claim to do so), they cite some exclusivist passages as authoritative (i.e., Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; John 14:6; 17:20). They point out that, in the Bible, God often spares only a few, so we shouldn't be surprised if he does that with salvation.

They also respond to inclusivist readings of Scripture. For example, inclusivists like to cite John 1:9, which says that the Logos enlightens every man who comes into the world. Inclusivists interpret this to mean that people can be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ, since the Logos still communicates to them, through nature and morality. The Logos who became Jesus Christ was, after all, the divine wisdom who permeated the universe. But Geivett/Phillips apply John 1:9 to Jesus' incarnation. When Jesus came to earth, his light shined on all sorts of people and forged distinctions (John 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:39-41). It shone on people, but not everyone was saved, for many resisted the light. And so Geivett/Phillips make John 1:9 explicitly about the incarnate Jesus.

Here are my problems with Geivett/Phillips:

1. Overall, I agree with the cosmological argument and the argument from design. I don't think that the argument from design is perfect, mind you, for there are many things about the universe that make little sense to me. For example, how's it help humanity for so much of the earth to be covered with salt-water? But, in the end, the design argument still works because so many factors had to come together for life to exist, and I don't think that could have happened by chance.

But these arguments for God's existence do not prove Christianity. They can easily coincide with Judaism and Islam. Heck, they can even coincide with Hick's religious pluralism, the view that God interacts with all of humanity through their different religious traditions.

Actually, I think that these arguments can present problems for Geivett/Phillips' position. God made a wide world with all sorts of people, who are objects of God's care and concern. And God interacts with only a small fraction of them, while he consigns the rest to eternal torment (or, for annihilationists, destruction)? That doesn't make much sense to me.

2. Geivett/Phillips do well to point to conservative scholars, who accept the historical reliability of the New Testament. My problem with Hick is that he acts as if all of New Testament scholarship is minimalist (although he cites a few conservative scholars who agree with him). From historical-criticism, Hick constructs a Jesus who did not claim to be God but was a good moral teacher.

Personally, I don't construct my theology from historical-criticism, for it's an unstable foundation. So many scholars disagree about what is the earliest strand of tradition, or what is reliable historically. I prefer to go with the final form of the biblical text. That's what has come down to us. I don't dig underneath the text in search of what's earlier, for God can teach us through later stuff. And is my theology based on anything that's not historical? Perhaps. God can instruct us through material that's not historically accurate.

But, back to Geivett/Phillips. Geivett/Phillips want to prove that Christianity is true, beyond the shadow of a doubt. And I don't think they successfully do that. For example, would Jesus' resurrection prove Christianity? Even Geivett/Phillips acknowledge that one can interpret that in different ways. For instance, they say that "Pinchas Lapide, an eminent Jewish scholar of the New Testament, affirms the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus, though he denies that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel" (266). So one can believe in Jesus' resurrection without being a Christian. How, then, does it prove Christianity? Geivett/Phillips should do more work to demonstrate that it supports Christian orthodoxy.

3. Geivett/Phillips are not exactly pastoral. Alister McGrath makes this point: "What does one say to a young Chinese student who has become a Christian, and yet whose parents, back in the rural heartland of the People's Republic of China, have never heard of Christ? He is naturally concerned for their spiritual welfare and destiny. I think it is this kind of pastoral concern that makes me a little hesitant concerning the approach taken by Geivett and Phillips" (258).

I've heard Christians say, "Oh, it's so great to believe in Christianity! It comforts us. We'll get to see our departed friends and loved ones." But that's not true for every Christian. What if most of one's friends and loved ones are unsaved?

Geivett/Phillips argue well from Scripture. Their interpretation may be the way things are. And they say on occasion, "We're not cold and heartless! We'd love for inclusivism to be true. But the Bible says otherwise. Don't blame us!" (my paraphrase). But they should work on their bedside manner. Is the Bible a cold set of propositions? Or does it reflect concern for people? If the latter is true, then Geivett/Phillips should add some pastoral concern to their clinical analysis.

But that's just my two cents, for what it's worth!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Alister McGrath on Religious Pluralism

I finished More Than One Way? last night, while I was watching my Moses marathon. Today, I will touch on Alister McGrath's essay.

McGrath basically argues that the religions are different, so we can't affirm that they're all saying the same thing. Ironically, I was reading this article while watching a 7th Heaven episode that touched on this issue. The episode I had on was about a Muslim family, which was struggling to find acceptance in the neighborhood. Ruthie was telling her little brothers, Sam and David, that Muslims believe in God. Sam and David then asked, "Well, if we all believe in God, then aren't we the same?" The dog, Happy, then says "Rrrr," as his ears perk up. I interpreted that to mean "Good point!" or "That's something to think about!" (I'm an Aspie, but I can still read dogs.) But, anyway, I saw this whole exchange while I read McGrath state the following:

"It is perfectly possible for the Christian to engage in dialogue with non-Christians, whether of a religious persuasion or not, without in any way being committed to the intellectually shallow and paternalist view that 'we're all saying the same thing'" (158).

Coincidence? Who knows? It was a funny incident, though.

I don't really care what Sam and David said, for their acting is rather stilted (although I was touched when they prayed for Simon at the end of one episode). But I have a hard time disagreeing with Happy. I love that dog! If only he were on more 7th Heaven episodes.

Here's my reaction: We are all the same, in the sense that we're people who need, want, and deserve love. But our beliefs are not necessarily the same, or even compatible in all areas. And, yet, there's a lot of overlap. I agree with Hick that most religions have some sense of the transcendent, along with an ethical maxim of loving one's neighbor.

But, even here, there can be nuance. I was thinking about this last night as I watched Cecil B. Demille's Ten Commandments. Egyptian religion had ideas of love for the poor and oppressed. We see this in Egyptian literature, but even Pharaoh Sir Sethi Hardwicke said on the movie that he nourished the poor and the orphan. Yet, Egypt also had slaves and treated them like dirt. Cecil B. Demille talked about this at the beginning: "But each sought to do his own will, for he knew not the light of God's law. The conquered were made to serve the conqueror. The weak were made to serve the strong." There was an ethical sense even in Demille's Egypt, so, contra Cecil, it didn't completely lack the light of God's law. But that ethical sense wasn't consistently applied. The culture had blind spots! You can see that contradiction in probably every culture.

I got a kick out of one of McGrath's statements: He said in opposition to Hick that different cultures have contrasting ideas of salvation. McGrath then refers to the "Rastafarian vision of a paradise in which blacks are served by menial whites" (171). I can detect some scorn in that reference. Christians, after all, believe in the equality of Jews and Gentiles, so it is obviously better than the racialist Rastafarian vision! And, yet, the Bible presents a vision that resembles the Rastafarian notion of paradise:

"[T]he house of Israel will possess the nations as male and female slaves in the LORD's land; they will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them" (Isaiah 14:2 NRSV).

This is my problem with McGrath: He says that different religions contradict one another and cannot be reconciled, but he ignores the diversity within the Bible itself. The New Testament presents an image of Jews and Gentiles being equal in God's community. That was Paul's whole point: He wanted the Gentiles to enter God's Israel as Gentiles, without having to become Jews first (through circumcision and Torah observance). But not all of the Bible favors that sort of equality: Isaiah 14:2 presents the Gentiles as menial servants of Israel after her eschatological restoration.

Here are a few more points about McGrath:

1. He seems to know all sorts of people. He mentions Satanist acquaintances, for example. It's good that he reaches out to all kinds and tries to understand their perspectives. I'm not as good as making friends, but, when I look back at my life, I realize that I've met all kinds of people--not Satanists, but people from other religions.

2. McGrath disputes the notion that God's plan rests entirely on Christians. Often, in my experience as an evangelical, I felt as if people's eternal destiny depended on me. I thought I needed to sell the Gospel--through good arguments, through being nice, through being impressive. But life is not that neat. Non-believers have arguments for their non-belief. Arguments such as "Jesus was Lord because he wasn't a liar or a lunatic" do not silence non-believers, at least not in the real world (they might on evangelism videos!). Plus, should I feel guilty of sending people to hell just because I make a social faux pas? Ridiculous!

Yet, God does involve us in his plan. We shouldn't kick back and expect him to do everything. We are participants in what he is doing. But we're not generating every aspect of what he is doing, through our own strength, wisdom, and perfection.

I've always been familiar with questions on religious pluralism, but the issue really hit home for me when I was at Harvard. There, I encountered people from all sorts of religions. As I saw Jews with their yarmulkes in the Law School library, I thought to myself, "Are they going to hell?" Of course, I held fast to annihilationism, the idea that God will destroy the wicked rather than tormenting them forever and ever, but that didn't make things better, at least not in my eyes. Does God have a plan for that Jewish person with the yarmulke? Or is his intention merely to burn him up? That Jewish person probably knows Christians, but is God's plan for him solely based on what Christians do?

In those days, I was reading Isaiah, and the scenario that appeared throughout the book was as follows: God will restore Israel, the nations will be impressed with God's power, and they'll come to Jerusalem to worship God. God acts, and that draws the nations to God. Yet, Israel still participates in what God is doing: She follows God and becomes a holy society, one that is a model to the Gentile nations. How different is that from what we see today? Now, there are all sorts of religions, and no way to prove which one is right (in my opinion). How is God acting today to draw nations to himself? And what role do we play?

Antonin Scalia: "Get Over It!"

60 Minutes has a good profile of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia says that the court owes no one an apology for what it decided in Bush v. Gore. He also points out that Gore was the one who brought the case to the Supreme Court in the first place.

I love Scalia. First of all, he doesn't allow liberals to intimidate him. Many liberals try to force an apology out of everyone who doesn't see the world as they do. Well, Scalia doesn't play their game. And, second, Scalia says that Gore has no right to pout. He brought the case to the Supreme Court, so he should just live with its decision.

Moses Marathon Awards

Well, I've just completed my Moses Marathon. As Cecil B. Demille's Ten Commandments soundtrack plays in the background, I am about to award the Moses Marathon awards. My choices were hard to make, and they will probably be different next year. But what follows is what stood out to me this year. Please see my last post for the list of Moses movies that I saw.

1. Best Moses: I award this to Ben Kingsley. His Moses is reticent and socially awkward. He doesn't seem to fit in anywhere, yet God uses him anyway.

2. Best Aaron: This goes to Anthony Quayle on the Burt Lancaster Moses movie. He's a great orator who does most of the talking for Moses. Isn't that why God sent Aaron in the first place (Exodus 4:14-15)?

3. Best Miriam: This goes to Sandra Bullock on Prince of Egypt. She loved her brother Moses, had faith in him, and stuck by him even when he was unpopular. Sure, the biblical one complained against him (Numbers 12), but I liked Sandra Bullock's comforting presence. Plus, even her animated character looks good.

4. Best Daddy Pharaoh: I award this to Patrick Stewart of Prince of Egypt. He wasn't a bad guy. He was a pretty good father figure to Moses. He just had misplaced values. He thought that the slaves were less than human, and he emphasized strong leadership to maintain order. He tried to train his son, Ramses, not to be the weak link, for he wanted to mentor him into the kingship. Unfortunately, he set Ramses up for his hardened heart during the plagues, which led to the ruin of Egypt.

5. Best Exodus Pharaoh: I award this to Frank Langella on the Ben Kingsley movie. I feel sorry for Yul Brynner. He was always in Moses' shadow, and Moses was always taking things away from him. Yet, Moses was so perfect that he didn't know he was taking things away from him. So Yul was the black sheep, who was trying to put up with his goody-two shoes "brother." I have a problem rooting against someone I pity. Ramses on Prince of Egypt is also a sympathetic character, for he and Moses were once good friends. But Frank Langella does a good job playing an arrogant jerk, who always makes fun of Moses and delights in throwing around his authority. I love to see those types knocked down a few notches!

6. Best Jethro: This goes to Danny Glover, who plays him on Prince of Egypt (as I just found out). This Jethro is so welcoming. He puts a robe on Moses after he is bathed. He reminds Moses that he has done honorable things, when Moses feels so alienated and worthless. I like a Jethro who welcomes the stranger.

7. Best Dathan: I really want to give this to Edward G. Robinson, but I'll give it instead to the Dathan on the Dourgay Scott Ten Commandments. This Dathan insidiously sows seeds of doubt and mistrust in the minds of Aaron and Miriam. "You guys stood near Moses when those miracles occurred," he said. "How do you know that you weren't the ones who did them?" Sounds pretty convincing! And that's most likely how Satan operates: he sows discord, but he doesn't sound totally wrong when he does so.

8. Best Plagues Scene: Definitely the one on Prince of Egypt. God really breaks the back of powerful Egypt in that scene! Plus, I love the song, "I send my scourge, I send the sword, thus saith the LORD!"

9. Best Red Sea Scene: The Cecil B. Demille one, hands down. I don't care if the other ones look better due to modern special effects. You just can't beat the astonished faces of those two kids, Dathan, and Abiram when God blocks the Egyptians with fire, while opening up the Red Sea for Israel.

10. Favorite Character: This year, the award goes to Bithia on Demille's Ten Commandments. For many years, I've had a soft spot in my heart for her. She goes from saying "Their God is the hope of the hopeless," to standing by God when most of the Israelites are making the Golden Calf. This fits in with what I'm reading in More Than One Way?, particularly the Clark Pinnock essay: Often, those who are outside of God's community "get it" more than those on the inside. This is true of Naaman the Syrian and faithful Gentiles in the Gospels. Perhaps the reason is that they like results, and they see that the God of Israel brings them about (unlike their own gods). But the Israelites were used to their own god, so he didn't impress them that much. Familiarity can breed contempt, even though it shouldn't. We should appreciate God the more we get to know him.

In any case, I'll respond to comments on my other posts tomorrow. Have a good night!

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Moses Marathon

The last Day of Unleavened Bread is tomorrow (I think), and I haven't really thought much about the Exodus. Last year, I did a Moses marathon, in which I watched a bunch of Moses movies. I'll try that this year as well. I have Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, Moses (with Ben Kingsley), Moses (with Burt Lancaster), and The Ten Commandments (with Dourgay Scott). Which will I watch first? I'm hesitant to start with my favorite (the Charlton Heston one), since I prefer to save the best for later. But I don't want to save it for last, for then I'd be burnt out on Moses movies and wouldn't get the emotional high I usually get out of it. Decisions, decisions!

More on Religious Pluralism: Clark Pinnock

I'm still working my way through Zondervan's More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Since my last post on this topic, I've read Clark Pinnock's defense of inclusivism, the responses to that, and Alister McGrath's article. Today, I will look at Clark Pinnock's contribution to the book.

In my discussions of this book, my purpose is not to present a comprehensive summary and critique of each article, but rather to highlight the ideas that I find compelling. Also, I'm saying how I read the articles, and I may be wrong in my interpretation of them. Scholarly articles are like mazes, so I tend to misunderstand them a lot.

Okay, so what did I get out of Pinnock? Well, Pinnock is an inclusivist. That means he believes that other religions can prepare people for faith in Christ. And so he can maintain that God is somehow involved in other religions, even as he holds fast to the superiority of Christianity.

He talks about those who've never heard the Gospel. For Pinnock, God judges them on the basis of how they responded to the light that they received. Did they show some faith towards God as they understood him, even as they tried to live a good life? Then, in Pinnock's eyes, they may qualify as holy men who will enter God's kingdom.

On what does Pinnock base his arguments? First of all, he believes that God's love is broad, inclusive, universal, and generous (he cites Psalm 65:5; Matthew 20:15; I Timothy 2:4; I John 2:2; Revelation 22:2). For him, that contradicts the notion that God will limit his salvation to those fortunate enough to hear the Gospel, particularly people born in the Christian West.

Second, he refers to Acts 14:17, which says that God "has not left himself without a witness in doing good-- giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy" (NRSV). Paul is talking to Gentiles, who up to that point did not have God's direct revelation (the Torah). But Paul says that God still managed to communicate his nature and goodness to them. And Pinnock maintains that God similarly communicates to non-Christian cultures today. Pinnock dismisses the Calvinist idea that God does this to exasperate the guilt of non-Christians, making them more culpable for rejecting God's goodness. Pinnock sees that as psychotic, and I can see his point. Rather, Pinnock believes God testifies to himself as a means of grace: he invites all people into a relationship with him.

Third, Pinnock refers to dispensationalism, which holds that God dealt with people in various ways throughout history. In Old Testament times, for example, God favored those who believed in him and obeyed his commandments. According to Pinnock, Abraham had no explicit knowledge of Christ, but God justified him anyway because he trusted in God's revelation. And so Pinnock speculates that God may deal in this way with people from non-Christian cultures.

I like Pinnock's article because it presents God as generous. It maintains that God takes notice of people in non-Christian cultures and has a beneficent plan for them. But I have some problems with it, from both a rightward and a leftward orientation. Yes, I am a man of contradictions!

1. Hick raises this point: If God is using other religions to bring their adherents to Christ, then he's not been that successful. Hick says the following: "Already the majority of human beings who have lived and died on this earth have done so outside Christianity. And while the number of Christians is increasing, the proportion of Christians in the world population is decreasing and has shrunk during the present century from a third to about a quarter" (125). Shouldn't God succeed in what he sets out to do?

2. I know good non-Christians who do know about the Gospel, yet they choose to stick with their non-Christian religions. And I don't mean those self-righteous atheists who pat themselves on the back and say, "Who needs God? I don't believe in God, and I live a good life" (pat, pat, pat). I mean various people I've known over the years who respect Christianity but just don't believe in it. I think of a Buddhist monk who was interested in Christianity and other religions, yet he's still a Buddhist. I've met a lot of Jewish people who are familiar with Christian ethics and admire them, but they choose to remain within their own religion. And, overall, they can be as loving and generous as Christians. (If I were to identify a difference, I'd say that many in non-Christian religions tend to reflect the world on sexual issues, such as pre-marital sex and homosexuality, but I can't be sweeping on that, since I'm sure that Orthodox Jews and Muslims are quite traditional on these things.) So why do we always focus on those who've never heard? A lot of decent people have heard, and they choose not to be Christians.

3. This brings me to another point: Why should a non-Christian believe in Christianity? What evidence does he have that it is the only true religion? Jesus did miracles to convince people that he spoke the truth. He says in John 15:24, "If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father." Some argue, "Well, God knows that such people will reject him anyway, even after hearing the Gospel and seeing miracles. So even those who haven't heard are guilty." But shouldn't God at least give them the chance to reject him? Sure, God's technically not obligated to do so. He'd be just to condemn them for their sins. But God is more than just. He's loving as well. That brings me to point 4:

4. My Armstrongite heritage had an answer to this hard question: God will offer people salvation after their deaths. Personally, I won't object if God ends up doing that. How many chances has he given me? But I don't see much evidence for the Armstrongite view in the Bible. Plus, from my experience, the impression that many Christians (and non-Christians) get from this doctrine is that their decisions in this life do not really matter. After all, God will give them a chance in the afterlife! Ron Dart said in one sermon that there's a reason that the Bible doesn't emphasize this doctrine too much, even though (for Dart) it is true. I think he's right: it generates spiritual apathy.

5. On a related point, Pinnock says that the Gospel should be more than fire insurance. For him, there should be a motive for spreading the Gospel, even if people from other religions can be saved apart from Christianity. That motive includes "proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, spreading the news about Jesus, and summoning people into the historically new people of God" (120). A friend of mine on this blog made a similar point: The Gospel is not just about escaping hell, for it primarily concerns new life, righteousness, and liberation from Satan's oppressive dominion. I agree, but the Gospel is also about fleeing God's wrath, as one can see by looking up "wrath" in a Bible concordance.

6. God has revealed himself to all people, but all have rejected him. That's why Jesus had to come. That's Paul's whole point in Romans 1:19-32: Everyone knows about God, even without God's direct revelation (the Torah). But all have sinned, which is why Jesus died on the cross. So is general revelation (God's revelation of himself through nature, conscience, and morality) a means of salvation, as Pinnock suggests? According to Romans 1:19-32, the answer seems to be "no." People got general revelation, yet they were still on their way to hell.

And, yet, I cannot be dogmatic here. First of all, Paul may believe that general revelation could have been salvific, but it wasn't because people chose sin. Even before Christ came, God's kindness was meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2:4). So was repentance a possibility apart from Christ, but people did not avail themselves of that opportunity? Why would God be kind to people to lead them to repentance, if repentance were not a genuine option for them?

Second, Cornelius was a righteous Gentile, even before he heard and accepted the Gospel. And God acknowledged him as righteous. God didn't say to him what many evangelicals would say about non-Christians: "Sure, you've done good things, but you're not perfect, and God demands perfection. Plus, God sees your righteousness as filthy rags anyway. And no one is truly righteous. I'm sure you're corrupt in a lot of areas!" I know these things are based on Scripture, but God does not say them to Cornelius. Rather, the angel tells him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God" (Acts 10:4). God was impressed with Cornelius! At the same time, Cornelius still needed to hear the Gospel. He obviously was not perfect, since God said he needed to be cleansed (Acts 10:15; 11:9; 15:9). So the situation may be more complex than a lot of us think!

7. I can understand why Pinnock sees other religions as a preparation for Christianity. Pinnock believes that Christianity is superior to other religions, and I don't fault him for this, for he is, after all, a Christian. Many people criticize Karl Rahner because he says that a righteous Buddhist is an "anonymous Christian." Why not say that the righteous Christian is an "anonymous Buddhist?" they ask. I admit that the approaches of Pinnock and Rahner can appear rather condescending to practitioners of other religions. But Pinnock and Rahner are Christians, so what do you expect? Of course they think that Christianity is better! Why else would they believe in it?

At the same time, I have a hard time saying myself that Christianity is better than other religions, even though I stick with Christianity. Religions in general have both things that attract me, and also things that repel me. I like the idea that God became incarnate to suffer and die on behalf of humanity. That shows a lot of love on God's part, more than I see in other religions. But I don't like the Christian concept of eternal torment in hell. I much prefer reincarnation--giving people a number of chances to get it right. I don't believe in reincarnation, since I try to avoid a cafeteria approach to religion. I'm just saying that all religions have attractive and repulsive elements, so appealing to a religion's attractiveness as a criterion of truth is pretty flimsy, in my opinion.

And this is a problem that I have with a lot of evangelicals. When I ask them why they believe Christianity is better than other religions, they say, "Well, other religions present God as mean and despotic. Ours has Jesus, who lovingly died for our sins." Here, they base their acceptance of Christianity on something they like about it. But when I point out something that's unattractive, such as hell, they say, "Well, we don't understand everything, so we should just have faith." Well, why shouldn't Muslims "just have faith" about the unattractive parts of their religion?

Also, I have problems seeing evangelical Christianity as the end-all, be-all of everything. Do other religions have anything to teach us, or do we have to believe that we have all of the answers?

So these are my thoughts. I hope you get something out of them, whether you agree with me or not!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Matthew 17:24-27 and Offense

Okay, I'm back at my apartment after my all too brief excursion in Brazil, Indiana. So I guess that I can't write any Free Style Entries now that I'm back. Rather, I need to document my claims and be a little more formal. Of course, many of you may think that my Free Style Entries are more formal than my regular ones. That's because stilted formality is my habitual writing style. I actually have to work a little bit to make my posts sound informal and conversational!

Yesterday, I wrote about Matthew 17:24-27, the passage in which Jesus helps Peter pay the temple tax by pulling a coin out of a fish. I discussed Jesus' reference to a human custom to convey a spiritual truth: that Christians did not need to pay money for the temple's support. But Jesus told Peter to pay the tax anyway to avoid offending people. And that's my topic for today: offense.

One thought that went through my mind as I read this passage was, "Why's Jesus care about offending people? He didn't hesitate to offend them before!" And, indeed, Jesus could be deliberately offensive when he wanted to do so, especially when he challenged the Pharisees' customs concerning the Sabbath, washing, korban, and a host of other issues. I'm sure Jesus offended them when he forgave the sins of the lame man, for they assumed that only God could remit sins (Mark 2:7). In Matthew 15:12, as a matter of fact, the disciples tell Jesus, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" And Jesus basically blows off their concern. Jesus often made waves, regardless of whom he offended. So why's he want to avoid offense in Matthew 17:24-27?

One explanation is that Jesus didn't want to make more waves than were absolutely necessary. In discussions about why Jesus hid his Messianic identity (the "Messianic Secret"), some scholars have sought practical reasons: Jesus didn't want the Jews to make him an earthly king, or Jesus didn't want to be killed before the right time (by the Romans or his Jewish enemies). Well, perhaps there's a practical reason for Jesus paying the temple tax, notwithstanding his belief that Christians didn't have to do so. Jesus had already offended the Jewish leaders, to the point that they were conspiring to kill him (Matthew 12:14). Maybe Jesus didn't want to speed up the process by giving them an additional motivation, one that could turn a lot of Jewish people against him. The issue of the temple tax was not that important.

And that brings me to my second explanation: Jesus picked his battles. He thought that issues such as the Pharisees' regulations on the Sabbath, washing, korban, and other things were important, for they directly concerned the Jews' relationship with God. Jesus wanted to offer his people freedom, a lighter burden than what the Pharisees imposed on the people (Matthew 11:28-30; 23:4). "You don't have to do these things to please God!" he was trying to say. He also disliked the orientation of the Pharisaic religion, for he believed that it focused on outward ritual rather than the truly crucial matters: inward purity, justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 15:1-20; 23:23). Plus, Jesus didn't care much for the way that the Pharisees' vaunted their righteousness before others (Matthew 6:1-18). As far as Jesus was concerned, Pharisaic doctrine was leaven: it corrupted its practitioners (Matthew 16:6-12). And, in order to communicate what he was all about and dispel what he considered to be religious darkness, he needed to make waves. Confrontation was inevitable.

But not much was at stake in the temple tax issue. For Jesus, bragging about one's special, tax-exempt status (which most Jews didn't even acknowledge) was not an issue worth fighting over. Sure, Jesus assured Peter that he was a child of the king, but he didn't want to create any unnecessary barriers to non-believers. For a lot of Jews, the temple tax was a big thing, a sign of support for God's house. Why would Jesus want to convey to them that he was disloyal to the temple? If he were to turn them off, he'd rather do so over important issues, the ones that pertained to their views on true righteousness and God's character. Jesus wanted to make them think, not get in their face with arrogance.

And this teaches a crucial lesson: the object of offense should be righteousness and conviction, not arrogance, rudeness, hatred, and other works of the flesh. If I had a nickle for the number of times Christians have said, "I can be a jerk, because Jesus was a jerk," I'd be a millionaire. I remember someone asking Ann Coulter at Xavier, "Why are you so mean? You put people down!" (not that liberals are in a position to criticize anyone over this). And her reply was, "Well, Jesus told off the Pharisees!" I've seen Christians be downright cruel, and they actually believe that they're following Jesus. After all, didn't Jesus call the Pharisees a generation of vipers (Matthew 23:33)? Didn't he cast out the moneychangers from the temple?

But Jesus didn't put people down out of self-superiority, arrogance, or disdain. He did so to make them think, to inspire within them a sense of repentance. Sometimes, confrontation was the only way to accomplish this.

Maybe Ann Coulter sincerely feels that she is doing this. She believes that she is criticizing liberals over serious issues, such as America's security from terrorists. I can't judge her heart, or anyone's, for that matter. I can only state what I believe to be the righteous standard: we shouldn't criticize others with arrogance, self-superiority, or hatred for others. But, if we are to offend, we should do so to help people and make them think.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

FSE: Matthew 17:24-27 and Culture

For my daily quiet time yesterday, I read Matthew 17:24-27. The passage addresses the issue of whether or not Jesus' disciples must pay the temple tax. Jesus says "no," since the sons of the king do not pay taxes; rather, everyone else does. The implication is that the Christians are God's children, the children of the kingdom, so they do not need to pay money to support the temple. Leave that to those who are not in God's royal family! But Jesus tells Peter to pay it anyway to avoid offending people. Jesus provides for it by removing a coin from a fish's mouth.

I thought about two things: God speaking to people in light of their own culture, and offense. Today, I will discuss the first topic.

Peter Enns has come under a lot of controversy for his book, Incarnation and Inspiration. One argument he makes is that God spoke to Israel within her ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset. That's why there are similarities between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi.

This is actually an issue that troubles a lot of people. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a theology class. The professor was dismissing the idea that God dictated the Torah to Moses. One reason that he disagreed with that notion was the similarity between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi. "So did God need to bone up on Hammurabi before he gave the Torah?" my professor sarcastically asked.

But God obviously does speak to people in light of their own culture. I don't think even a hard-core fundamentalist can deny that. I mean, did God come up with the custom of kings' children being exempt from taxes? I don't think so. Humans came up with that custom. And, yet, God somehow found it useful for communicating the relationship between God and human beings.

Maybe God developed this truth in response to human culture. Or perhaps he foresaw what human culture would be and constructed his truth accordingly. Extreme skeptics would probably argue that humans make God in their own image anyway, so we shouldn't be surprised when ideas about the divine reflect human culture.

If God wraps his truths in the cultural constructs of his audience, what happens when the culture changes? Do we then need new metaphors? I remember this one liberal rabbi's wife who said, "I get so tired of reading these monarchical prayers. This is the twentieth century!"

Personally, I'd be hesitant to come up with new metaphors. I wouldn't exactly want theology to be continually in flux. We need some authoritative foundation. I guess I'm too much of a fundamentalist on that point. In my opinion, we should just remember that God revealed the Bible within a certain culture, which we should try to understand in order to grasp the Bible better.

And, even though the culture of the Bible no longer exists in many parts of the world (primarily the West), I think that people can still find value in its ancient metaphors. I once went to church, and I was chatting with some visitors before the service. They were emphasizing the value of obeying Christ. "In those days, you obeyed the king," they said. "People today don't understand what a king is." Personally, I don't see God mainly as a king, for he is a Father as well. But the metaphor of a king is still useful. What are we going to call God to highlight his authority? The President? Americans don't even respect the President these days! I didn't respect Clinton much, and there are a lot of Americans who don't think too highly of President Bush. "King" connotes a grand and (almost) absolute authority, which God is. So the ancient metaphors have value, even though they're from another culture.

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