Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Questions on Natural Selection

I have a question about natural selection for those who know how evolution works.

I think I understand the general idea: The fit survive and pass on their genes, whereas the unfit die. For Richard Dawkins, that accounts for much of the apparent "design" in life. In his view (as I understand it), I as a human being have (say) an eye not because God designed it for sight, but because only those with eyes were able to survive and reproduce. Fit animals exist because they were fit enough to survive and pass on their genes, not because God made them fit. That's my understanding of natural selection (which may be flawed).

My question is this: How did the fit become fit in the first place? Was it through a random mutation? I know that nature weeded out those without a functional eye, but did the eye itself emerge randomly, according to evolutionists?

Creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design argue that an eye needs all of its necessary parts in order to function, so it had to be created whole at the outset. Otherwise, all of those creatures a long time ago would have died off because of their deficient eyes, and there'd be no life right now! Michael Behe refers to the analogy of the mousetrap, which needs all of its parts to work. For Behe, a mousetrap in which one part is deficient cannot do its job, so it makes more sense to say that someone created the mousetrap in a complete and functional state than to suggest that it evolved there through imperfect stages (in which it wouldn't even work).

Critics of ID counter, however, that an imperfect eye (and an imperfect mousetrap) can still be functional. My question: how does the imperfect eye become more functional? Is it through a random mutation?

I can understand that the fit survive, but is there an evolutionary answer for how the fit got their fit characteristics in the first place?

Rule: Please address my question without calling me ignorant!

The Anthropic Principle

This continues my series on atheist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. For background, see Dawkins and My (Not Quite So) Open Mind.

The anthropic principle states that physical conditions are "just right" for human life to exist on earth. If certain constants of physics varied by only a little bit, no human life would exist on this planet. And there are many such constants. Astronomer Hugh Ross lists some in Design and the Anthropic Principle, and he states in Anthropic Principle: A Precise Plan for Humanity that "By the end of 2001, astronomers had identified more than 150 finely-tuned characteristics."

Creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design argue that the anthropic principle is evidence for a creator. Dawkins, however, views the anthropic principle as an alternative to Intelligent Design, not as something that supports it. Dawkins' argument is similar to something that Russell Miller said on Felix's blog, in response to Byker Bob (see Another festival of John Ankerberg youtube clips: Life After Death):

Oh, come on. The “fine tuning” you speak of is not an issue, because the universe is so freaking big that the probability of such conditions happening at at least one place are much higher than they might be in a smaller universe. We played the odds, and we won, at least until we wreck everything...I like to use the example of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms seem like this incredible thing that could only come about with the right conditions, and that the conditions are so hard to accomplish that it must be something that God creates, right? Wrong. A thunderstorm is a feedback loop that is basically the atmosphere trying to stabilize itself. Warm air rides under cold air, pushes itself up through the cold air because it has a lot of convective energy, and eventually (under the right conditions) establishes itself as a heat pump. The conditions go away, the storms go away.

I don't totally understand Russell's argument about thunderstorms, but what he may be saying is this: thunderstorms require the "right conditions" to exist, but they're not the result of design. Rather, they result from the "atmosphere trying to stabilize itself." So why should we assume that our galaxy having the "right conditions" for life is from the hand of God? It can have a natural cause, just like thunderstorms. And, because the universe is so big, it's not that extraordinary that there's at least one planet in it that supports life. In the same way that thunderstorms appear every once in a while under certain conditions, so there emerged at least one planet with the right conditions for life in a predominantly lifeless universe.

That argument makes more sense to me now that I've typed it out, assuming I defined it correctly in the first place! Personally, Intelligent Design still appears valid to me, especially when I consider how close we came to not existing. So many constants had to be just right for life to exist, that I wonder if we are really that lucky.

Moreover, the big bang had to occur as it did for life to exist. According to a summary of God's Universe by Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, "If the Big Bang had banged only slightly more vigorously, matter would have been blown apart too fast for stars and planets to be formed" (see here). Russell and Dawkins tend to look at one planet in a vast universe, but the very universe itself had to begin in a certain way for earth to have life. The anthropic principle goes back way before the origin of earth!

That's how I'd respond to another argument against Intelligent Design: that there are multiple parallel universes, and ours is one of the few that has life. Do all of these universes have stars and planets? If so, then the big bang had to occur in a certain way for them to exist. What are the chances of that?

There are other arguments against Intelligent Design. Dawkins states that the anthropic principle tends to look at the constants individually: if this constant is off by only a little bit, then there would be no life. But, according to Dawkins, maybe ours is not the only combination that can sustain life. Perhaps the constants can have different values and sustain life at the same time, if they are combined differently with the other constants. Similarly, others argue that the anthropic principle focuses too much on carbon-based life, when there may be life forms that don't rely on carbon for their existence. I'm not sure how to respond to these arguments. Can life exist without stars, within another combination? I don't know.

I'll leave here and perhaps continue the discussion in a future post. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Forum on Mary Lane's Comment

Under my post, Person with Asperger's Seeks Spiritual Home, I sort of violated my own rule. I told my readers not to respond to what other commenters are saying under the post, since its aim is to help the spiritual seeker with Asperger's (Anthony), not to ignite a feud.

But Mary Lane made a comment that I had to respond to. She said the following:

I would have to say that most likely those who feel that they need to dabble into religions outside the Scriptures that God has given us, are living life on the edge-okay? The Devil is just as real as the God who created him (Isa.45:7) and he is very adequately disguising himself in the religions of men and organizations. Innovative novices are subject to being "taken at his will" (II Tim.2:25-26) It behooves those of us who decide to remake God into a more palatible Image, to consider that the actual Designer of that designer religion, may not be able to save us. (Just FYI)

Mary Lane may be addressing me and/or Anthony, since both of us have looked into non-Christian religions. Anthony dabbled in Kabbalah and was thinking briefly about studying Buddhism, and I'm currently reading the Koran, with Buddhist and Hindu scriptures lined up on my desk for future projects.

Here are two points:

1. On one hand, Mary Lane's comment convicts me. I'd like to think that God is somehow involved in all religions, but is such the case, according to the Scriptures? Paul said that those sacrificing to other gods were actually worshipping demons (I Corinthians 10:20), even though Zeus often stood up for justice. Revelation 12:9 affirms that Satan has deceived the whole world.

But there is also a strand of biblical tradition that appreciates the wisdom of other cultures. Paul quotes Stoic authors in Acts 17, in his attempt to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, as Randall Heskett points out (see Wife Swap), the Book of Proverbs includes chapters that contain the wisdom of non-Israelite kings (e.g., Proverbs 31). And there are Christians (e.g., C.S. Lewis, the Pope) who view other religions as preparatory for belief in Christ. In the second century C.E., Justin Martyr even posited that Socrates was open to the divine logos, even though the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, would come centuries later.

2. Mary Lane criticizes remaking God into a more palatable image. As you can tell, she doesn't care much for pick-and-choose religion! But, as I wrote under the post, I wonder why she is a Christian and not (say) a Muslim. A lot of evangelicals will respond, "Well, because the God of Christianity loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us, whereas Islam's deity is rather harsh." But isn't that accepting an image of God just because it's more palatable than another image?

Or an evangelical may respond, "Because Jesus rose from the dead." Well, Islam claims that Muhammad ascended to heaven! Why should we accept one truth claim and not another?

Another common evangelical response: "Because the early Christians were willing to die for their faith, and who would die for a lie?" But the early Muslims also suffered for their beliefs. They were persecuted and kicked out of Mecca. Why would people suffer for a lie?

Please address these comments here and not under the post about Anthony's search for a spiritual home.

Thanks, to all who will participate.

Dawkins and My (Not Quite So) Open Mind

I finished listening to atheist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion last night. Over the next few days, I want to interact with that book, but I'll be using some of Russell Miller's comments as my launching point. Please remember that not every detail of the book is in my mind, since I listened to it on CDs and was often doing other things at the same time.

Under my post, The Bible and Morality, Russell Miller said: "I'm a little surprised you're reading/listening to [Dawkins' book], but good on you. It shows some level of open-mindedness. :)"

I appreciate the compliment, but I should clarify something about open-mindedness: I have no intention of becoming an atheist, regardless of what Dawkins argues. When I was an undergraduate, atheist and agnostic professors thought that I should base my beliefs on some sort of positivist methodology: I can only believe in things that are supported by reason and evidence. Today, I feel no such compulsion. Now, if I want to convince a non-believer of the truth of theism, then I'd better use more than "Just have faith." But, as far as I personally am concerned, reason and evidence are not the only factors in what I believe. There are also personal needs, emotions, experience, a desire for something more to life, attraction to certain aspects of religion, etc.

Dawkins would ask, "Then why don't you believe in the flying spaghetti monster? You can prove that just as much as you can prove God (meaning you can't prove it)." Look, I don't care if someone believes in a flying spaghetti monster. If that makes him a good person, then I say "Go for it." Personally, I don't think it's so far-fetched to believe that a supreme being created everything and is involved in life, so I don't put God and the flying spaghetti monster in the same category. But that's just me.

What's interesting is that Dawkins is open to things that he can't prove, see, or touch. He speculated in Expelled that aliens are responsible for the design on earth, and he expressed openness to the existence of extra-terrestrial life in The God Delusion. Dawkins defenders have pointed out that aliens are natural, whereas God is supernatural, but that's just quibbling over words (in my humble opinion). I doubt that Dawkins has ever seen an alien, and "evidence" of alien life (e.g., spotting a UFO, experiencing abduction) can have other explanations, just like people's experiences of God. Why should I feel bad about embracing God's existence as a possibility? To his credit, there are times when even Russell Miller acknowledges that God may exist (i.e., "If there is a God..."). There's lots out there that we don't know about!

Then why do I read Dawkins, if I have no intention of becoming an atheist? I'm interested in how different people see life, including ways that non-Christians perceive Christianity. I remember hearing one Christian woman (at one of the schools that I attended) affirm that Christians can learn from what outsiders say about them--more than they can if they just hang out among themselves, read only their own writings, and watch only their own programs. At DePauw, I had a Christian friend who often saw truth in what non-believers were saying!

And there were gems that I got out of Dawkins. In his critique of Pascal's Wager (i.e., believe in God because he may exist, and God will reward you in the afterlife for believing in him without proof), Dawkins asks why we should assume that God places such value on believing in him without evidence. Why can't God place a greater value on, say, kindness? Good question! Dawkins also expressed shock that Christian martyrs were willing to die over minutiae of doctrine. He makes a good point, but that goes to show that what matters to insiders may appear unimportant to outsiders, since insiders believe something is at stake.

Coming soon: the anthropic principle. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Person with Asperger's Seeks Spiritual Home

I need some help from my readers!

Recently, a person with Asperger's named Anthony commented on my post, "Asperger's and Religion". He said that he's dabbled in Kabbalah but left that because he lost the red string. (I'm don't know what that means, but my exposure to Kabbalah has been rather limited.) He also remarked that he can't go into Buddhism, though he didn't specify why.

What really caught my eye was when he said that he feels like an outsider and asked if he should just accept that reality and make the most out of Christianity.

I feel that way a lot of times. As my readers know, there are many aspects of evangelical Christianity that do not appeal to me (e.g., hell, exclusivism, having to be a happy, happy social extrovert, etc.). But I stick with it because I see some beauty in it and I have an attitude like Jacob in the Bible: I won't let go of God until he blesses me. Still, I'm curious about what's on the other side of the fence, and that's why I've been studying other religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, eventually Buddhism and Hinduism, etc.).

How would you respond to a searcher like Anthony? Have you found a spiritual or ideological home in which you are comfortable? If so, how?

Anyone of any ideological stripe can offer his or her two-cents. In my opinion, what's beautiful about these kinds of posts (in which I ask for help) is that good advice comes from a variety of worldviews.

Just a few rules, though: No feuding. No putting each other down. Actually, it might be best if you don't address one another and just offer your opinion or advice.

Thanks for any help you can offer!

Hoover and FDR: Liberal or Conservative?

I just watched This Week with George Stephanopoulos (click here to see it). In the second half of the program (for which I cannot find a transcript), people were claiming that Herbert Hoover was the liberal whereas Franklin Roosevelt was the conservative. Someone asserted that Franklin Roosevelt dramatically cut government spending when he came into office, and George Will then pointed out that Herbert Hoover had increased it by over 40 per cent when he was President. George apparently heard Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner agree with this particular scenario of history, for he referred to Geithner's claim in the first half of the program that FDR "put the brakes on too early" in the early years of his Presidency, thereby worsening the Great Depression (see Transcript).

Many deem the late 1920's and early 1930's to be relevant for today, for people look to the past for guidance on what (or what not) to do about our current economic crisis. Conservatives and liberals alike offer different narratives, with conflicting portrayals of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.

Here are two liberal narratives:

1. Herbert Hoover believed in free markets and less government, an ideology that ultimately led to the Great Depression. The Depression only got worse under his watch, and his callous Administration did nothing to assist those who were suffering. The economy only got better when FDR became President and instituted programs to help people. You hear this point of view today, as many blame laissez-faire for our current economic mess and propose massive government intervention (e.g., regulation, spending) to ameliorate it.

2. FDR was actually a conservative, whose draconian budget cuts only made the Great Depression worse. Communists, socialists, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, etc., asserted that Roosevelt's New Deal did not go far enough, and that FDR was in bed with big business interests rather than the American people. The "FDR was too conservative" approach was what Timothy Geithner promulgated on This Week. However, neither Obama nor Geithner want to go as far as communists, socialists, or extreme leftists desire.

Here are three conservative narratives:

1. The economy was actually getting better near the end of Hoover's Presidency, but FDR's New Deal prolonged the Depression and made it worse, as unemployment climbed during FDR's first two terms. In this narrative, what ended the Great Depression was America's involvement in World War II, not the New Deal. John Stormer presents this view in his landmark 1964 classic, None Dare Call It Treason. On pages 262-265, he offers documentation for these claims.

Today, many conservatives make this argument in response to Liberal Narrative # 1 (see above). As Obama is portrayed as the second FDR, conservatives are ready to respond that the first FDR wasn't that hot, and that a laissez-faire approach (a la Hoover) is the best way to get the economy moving again.

2. Hoover was a liberal and FDR was a conservative. Hoover increased taxes, government spending, and tariffs, causing America to sink deeper into the Great Depression. FDR, by contrast, reduced government spending and embraced free trade. And, sure enough, America recovered on his watch.

John McCain made this argument in the second 2008 Presidential debate, as he argued that Herbert Hoover's taxes and protectionism made the Great Depression worse. He made this claim to undermine Obama, who had tax increases and protectionist ideas as part of his platform. And, although Ronald Reagan once quoted a historian who said that FDR got his New Deal idea from Fascism, he also appealed to the conservative FDR. Reagan often said that he did not leave the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party left him. In part of his mind, FDR was actually an advocate for less government.

3. Both Hoover and FDR were big government liberals. Hoover increased taxes and government spending, and FDR continued that trend, in violation of his 1932 campaign promises. Moreover, FDR's taxes, spending, and regulations hindered the economy and prolonged the Great Depression, which only ended because of American involvement in World War II. For documentation of these claims, see William P. Hoar's article, A Bad Deal Revisited — Obama and FDR. William P. Hoar is a John Bircher, but he quotes historians who maintain that FDR increased government spending and that unemployment worsened on his watch.

Who's right? Can all of them be right, in some way, shape, or form? Maybe FDR cut and increased government spending at various points of his Presidency. Perhaps Hoover embraced laissez-faire in some areas but not in others. As far as the Great Depression is concerned, most agree that it lasted for a long time, but we eventually got out of it. Should we celebrate FDR for getting us out of the Depression, or should we castigate him for its length?

I've encountered these questions often in my life, largely in the eccentric things that I've read (e.g., the Communist Party Platform of 1936, John Birch books, a biography of Huey Long, etc.). Now these questions are part of America's political mainstream, as leaders ponder how to get America out of its current economic crisis.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Musings on Ben Stein's Expelled

I know this post is a little late, but last night I watched Ben Stein's Expelled for the very first time. I really enjoyed it for a variety of reasons. I love Ben Stein because he's a good Republican and was on The Wonder Years (BTW, congratulations, Danica!) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I learned from the movie that Intelligent Design is not a specifically evangelical movement, for it contains Jews, Muslims, and even agnostics. And I thought that the movie's depiction of the inside of the cell was riveting in its music, color, and graphical demonstration of complexity.

I also read critiques of the movie, some of which I liked, and some of which I did not care for. Wikipedia, for instance, said that the movie received overwhelmingly poor reviews, in part because it was boring and poorly made. Were these critics watching the same movie? I hope they're not the types who gush at Michael Moore's "documentaries."

One critique is that the pro-ID professors on the movie who lost their jobs or failed to get tenure were not being punished for teaching Intelligent Design. After all, a lot of people didn't get tenure! I'm skeptical about the "official" explanations, though. These professors feel that Intelligent Design had something to do with their fall from academia, and even some of the critical sites point out "problems" in what they were teaching. So I don't believe that them teaching Intelligent Design and them suffering academically are pure coincidence.

As far as Stein's connection of evolution with eugenics and Nazism is concerned, sure, it's not entirely fair. Even if the Nazis used "natural selection" to buttress their agenda, that wasn't Darwin's fault, plus the Nazis didn't necessarily apply evolutionary concepts correctly. Hitler tried to put into place artificial selection, whereas evolution is about natural selection. But religion often is blamed for the acts of bad religious people, so forgive me if I don't shed a tear when Darwinism gets the same treatment!

I agree with critics who point out that Stein quoted Darwin out of context. Stein quotes Darwin as saying that helping the poor and the weak is injurious to the race of man, when Darwin actually states in the next paragraph that we should do those things anyway (see here). Darwin may have been a complex figure. I have heard people try to tie him with racism, but I saw a book in the library not long ago that said he was anti-slavery.

Although the movie presents evolutionist Eugenie Scott claiming that a lot of religious people believe in evolution, I think its overall message is that evolution=atheism, which is bad (in the movie). I agree with critics who say that Ben should have interviewed Kenneth Miller, a staunch evolutionist who is also a devout Catholic. And, while the movie shows a blurb of John Polkinghorne saying that science can't disprove God, it should have also pointed out that Polkinghorne believes in God and evolution.

What's interesting is that both ID supporters and evolutionists act like they're the underdog in the cultural war. Stein presented atheist Richard Dawkins as someone who helped build the "wall" that keeps ID proponents out of science, as if he has a significant amount of power. When I listen to Dawkins' God Delusion, however, I can tell that's not how he feels. In his eyes, he's a voice of reason amidst a sea of numerous people who embrace religious superstition and are eager to persecute those who disagree. Both sides view themselves as victims and outsiders.

Is there a way for dialogue to exist between the two camps? Stein talks as if the persecution of ID-proponents is an attack on academic freedom, which allows people to ask anything they want, even about evolution. ID-proponents apparently want their beliefs to get a fair hearing. But it's not as if evolutionists are unwilling to engage the concept, for they have made arguments about why ID is problematic and how evolution can account for the "gaps" ID claims to identify. Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God contains a lengthy critique of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, and Dawkins engages the argument from design in The God Delusion. Can the two sides find some way to engage one another, without crying to the courts (as evolutionists do) or the local school boards (as conservative Christians do)?

I'm not in the mood right now to get into the arguments of Intelligent Design. Overall, I believe there is design, but I'm open to scientists looking for other explanations. At the same time, I was a little disappointed that Dawkins didn't point out the "flaws" of nature, as many critics of the design argument have done. Instead, he said that aliens are responsible for the design in nature. Go figure!

Whether you agree or disagree, Expelled is a movie worth seeing!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Judaism, Abortion, and Joan

I read MShaffer's Joan of Arcadia: Season 3 episode, Episode 3.18, The Child, Part 1.

Joan's brother Luke has gotten Grace pregnant. Luke wants Grace to abort the baby, for he just got into MIT (his lifelong dream) and doesn't want the responsibility of raising a child. Grace, however, is reluctant. As she struggles with her options, she finds the answer to her dilemma in her Hebrew class. The instructor discusses Exodus 21:22-25, which states (in the KJV):

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

There is debate about what this passage means. Pro-choicers argue this: If the woman suffers a miscarriage, then the guilty party pays a fine. But if there is harm to the woman, then lex talionis (eye for eye, up to the death penalty) takes effect. By contrast, pro-lifers contend as follows: If the baby comes out of the woman not fully formed, then the guilty party pays a fine. But if there is damage to the baby, then lex talionis is brought into play. Is lex talionis (eye for eye, et al.) the punishment for harming the woman or the baby? That is the debate.

Grace's Hebrew instructor opts for the "both" answer. After noting that the Hebrew word yeled in Exodus 21:22 means "child" and that Amos 1:13-14 condemns the Ammonites for deliberately ripping open pregnant women in Gilead, he offers the following conclusions about Exodus 21:22-25:

“This passage means the very opposite of what some who support abortion profess. In this case, the woman is accidentally struck, but if she or the child dies as a result, then the guilty party could be sentenced to death. This is the only instance in the Torah where involuntary manslaughter calls for the death penalty.”

I'm impressed by MShaffer's command of the Hebrew language and the debate over Exodus 21:22-25. But, in terms of real life, would someone hear this sort of message in a temple or synagogue? I have my doubts for two reasons.

1. In the history of Judaism, you find the sort of position that Grace's Hebrew instructor advocates--that the Torah mandates the death penalty for unintentionally causing the death of the fetus. It's in the Septuagint's translation of Exodus 21:22-25, Philo of Alexandria's Special Laws 3:108-109, the Samaritan Targum, and Karaite commentators. The problem is that these are not the forms of Judaism that came to dominate in Jewish communities. The Septuagint and Philo represent Hellenistic Judaism, not the rabbinic Judaism that became normative for Jews after 70 C.E. The Samaritans were considered outsiders because they weren't full Israelites, and the Karaites were a marginal voice within Judaism, which went the rabbinic route (even though the Karaites may have given us the Masoretic Text).

Palestinian and rabbinic Judaism, however, interpreted Exodus 21:22-25 to mean (1.) a fine for miscarriage, and (2.) lex talionis for harm to the mother. Josephus goes that route in Antiquities 4:278. Encyclopedia Judaica's well-documented article on "Abortion" (which I recommend, though I can't cut-and-paste parts of it) characterizes the position of the rabbis and medieval codes as follows: Exodus 21:22-25 imposes a fine for unintentionally causing a miscarriage, but abortion is still prohibited within Judaism, except to save the life of the mother. There seems to be debate about whether or not the fetus is a person. Normative post-70 Judaism appears to have an anti-abortion position, but it's not rooted in Exodus 21:22-25.

2. Grace could have heard an anti-abortion message in an orthodox Hebrew class, although I doubt it would have justified its beliefs from Exodus 21:22-25. But Grace is not orthodox, since she had a bat mitzvah, at which men and women were sitting together. In most orthodox synagogues, there are only bar mitzvahs (with some exceptions), and men and women sit apart.

Grace may be conservative or Reform. If she's conservative, she could have heard an anti-abortion message, since conservatives are interested in the halacha. If she is Reform, however, then I seriously doubt that she would hear it. With the exception of one professor, most of my Reform Jewish colleagues with whom I've discussed abortion claim on the basis of Exodus 21:22-25 that the fetus is not a person. If they have any conservative leanings whatsoever, they usually relate to Israel. On abortion, however, they're mostly pro-choice.

But I don't mind Grace's Hebrew teacher channeling the Septuagint, Philo, and the Karaites! Although they didn't dominate within Judaism, they had their influence on the world. The Septuagint and possibly Philo were big in Christianity, and (as I said above) the Karaites may have given us the Masoretic Text.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Bible and Morality

I'm listening to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion right now, and he argues that morality is not rooted in the Bible. His reason is that the Bible has many things that strike people as immoral. He mentions Numbers 31, in which Moses gets mad at the Israelites for sparing the Midianite women in battle. Moses commands the Midianite women to be slain, while allowing the Israelites to spare the virgins for themselves.

Evangelical Christians have told me that God knows better than we do, so we should accept his word as authoritative, even when it appears to contradict our morality. What's ironic is that, in apologetics, many evangelicals actually try to reconcile the Bible's troublesome passages with our morality. Even in their eyes, our morality is still valid. Some may say "Shut up, morality! God can do what he wants," but many don't go that route.

Which takes precedence: the Bible or our morality? When the two are in conflict, is the Bible always right, especially in areas such as slavery or slaughtering men, women, and children? If our morality is cultural in any way, can it ever be wrong? The Bible strikes many people today as patriarchal, but maybe its focus on family has something to teach moderns, with their emphasis on individual autonomy. Or do the Bible and morality actually conflict? Maybe even the most troublesome passages of the Bible would seem moral to us, if we knew the full story.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Frum and the Relevance of Less Government

In the waiting room a few days ago (to see my therapist), I read David Frum's Newsweek article against Rush Limbaugh, Why Rush is Wrong.

Frum argues that the conservative message of less government will not mobilize voters as it did in the 1970's:

The conservatism we know evolved in the 1970s to meet a very specific set of dangers and challenges: inflation, slow growth, energy shortages, unemployment, rising welfare dependency. In every one of those problems, big government was the direct and immediate culprit. Roll back government, and you solved the problem. Government is implicated in many of today's top domestic concerns as well…But the connection between big government and today's most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing as it was 27 years ago. So, unsurprisingly, the anti-big-government message does not mobilize the public the way it once did.

To my surprise, however, Frum is still somewhat of a conservative. He laments: Decisions that will haunt American taxpayers for generations have been made with hardly a debate. The federal government will pay more of the cost for Medicaid, it will expand the SCHIP program for young children, it will borrow trillions of dollars to expand the national debt to levels unseen since WWII. And, while he maintains that Republicans should focus on the high cost of health care rather than tax cuts, he is firm that their proposed solution should be "free market health-care reform," not socialism.

I think Frum has a lot of good ideas, but I'd hardly call a commitment to less government politically irrelevant. There are still people who believe that big government suppresses the economy and liberty. I recently checked out a 2006 book, Size Matters: How Big Government Puts the Squeeze on America's Families, Finances, and Freedom (and Limits the Pursuit of Happiness, by Joel Miller. In some cases, oppressive government intervention is obvious to Americans, for I still hear middle-class people complain about taxes and regulations they deem unreasonable.

In other cases, many don't seem to realize that the problems the government claims it wants to solve may be caused by government in the first place. How many Americans know that the Community Reinvestment Act pressured lenders to make high-risk loans, which resulted in our current economic crisis?

Joel Miller argues that big government drives up the cost of health care, and, while I haven't gotten to that part of the book yet, I've heard from others how that could be the case. Under Ben Witherington's posts 'Sicko'-- It's Enough to make you ill and Canadian Nurses love 'Sicko': Hand out free tickets to help prevent the Canadian system going the American way, there were commenters who showed how government over-regulation limits the supply of hospitals in America, driving up the cost of health care. Michael Tanner documents in Leviathan on the Right that the Republicans in Congress under Newt Gingrich sought to restrict hospital competition. And, on the radio a few nights ago, conservative conspiracy theorist Dr. Stanley Monteith (a physician) said that the feds really clamped down on county clinics, which provided inexpensive health care. Frum assumes that government intervention is no longer a problem, when it very well may be.

I also think that a message of fiscal responsibility can be popular with a lot of Americans. During the election, I heard Obama supporters lament that the Bush-deficits would have to be paid by our children. And one criticized Governor Sarah Palin for taking out a bond, which future generations of Alaskans would have to pay.

One thing Frum's article brought to my attention is that Obama's S-CHIP expansion can easily become another entitlement. To be honest, I don't give a flying flip about most conservative critiques of the expansion. It covers the middle class? Heck, the middle class can use help with their high premiums and health care costs! People would leave private insurers for the government program? Oh well! The private insurers will have to compete for once. Poor babies! But another entitlement? That's something that concerns me, especially since the cost of our current entitlements continues to go up, leading many to forecast a significantly higher tax burden for future generations.

Maybe less government can be a powerful message, if Republicans articulate it well and actually practice what they preach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Concluding My Falsani Series

Source: Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

The Cathleen Falsani book is due tomorrow, and I'll be getting my exercise today by walking to the library to return it. Consequently, I want to finish up the series I began a long time ago on Cathleen Falsani's Sin Boldly.

Part 6 was supposed to be about God speaking, but there are three other themes that I also want to discuss. And so here we go!

1. At the very beginning of her book, Falsani talks about learning about God's grace as she watched the movie Bruce Almighty. She was having an especially bad day, and she stumbled on the movie as she flipped through her several HBO channels.

Bruce Almighty was a good movie for her situation, for it's about a discontent reporter who learns to see others through God's eyes. At the beginning, Bruce is not happy about his life (even though his girlfriend is Jennifer Aniston). He works at a news station, but he doesn't do serious news. He does funny, inspirational, touchy-feely stories, which sometimes get cut for segments deemed more important. Bruce also has a crush on the female news anchor (not Jennifer Aniston, but the lady from JAG), who doesn't give him the time of day. When Bruce doesn't get the job as news anchor, he has a meltdown and is fired.

Eventually, God lets Bruce be God for a while. In the course of this experience, Bruce loses his girlfriend and gets run over (if my memory is correct). In heaven, God asks him what he wants, and Bruce responds that he wants Grace (his girlfriend, aka Jennifer Aniston) to find someone who sees her through God's eyes (love). Bruce has moved beyond thinking only about himself.

Cathleen is moved to tears by God's love, patience, and grace towards Bruce, a real malcontent. I could identify with this part of the book because TV, movies, and books are often a catharsis for me, and they give me something different to experience and think about as I plough through my discontentment.

That brings me to the second point:

2. Somewhere in the book, Falsani defines God speaking as God interrupting our thoughts, as he gets us to stop and think. Many of us are continually on the move, as we go with the flow with the inertia of our day-to-day thoughts. But God can interrupt that inertia and get us to think about the good and the beautiful. He can do so through books, movies, TV shows, people, and nature.

I like that perspective because it's so open. It seems to assert that God is somehow involved in the lives of everyone, not just those who accept Christ as their personal Savior. And Acts 14 and 17 has passages that indicate such to be the case (although not everyone is saved). Falsani gets impatient with those who like to divide grace and make it so technical, with their labels of "common grace" (for everyone) and "special grace" (for the redeemed). In her mind, why can't we just say that God shows people grace (undeserved favor), period?

Part of me likes what I learned about Friedrich Schleiermacher in college. For Schleiermacher, "God-consciousness" is recognizing that there's a power greater than ourselves--that we are not autonomous and did not bring ourselves into being. My understanding is that Schleiermacher thought all sorts of things could bring us to a God-conscious state: literature, nature, the Bible, maybe even other religions. Schleiermacher's definition of religion bypassed the problems posed by modernity, such as the attacks on biblical inerrancy by historical-criticism and evolution. For him, biblical inerrancy on history and science was not necessary to have a religious life, since religion wasn't about that. Rather, it concerned us arriving at "God-consciousness." If the Bible could encourage that through its stories, laws, poems, and prophecies, then it was doing its job.

One way I've changed over the past few years is that I'm more open to people drawing from different sources for their spirituality. Years ago at DePauw, I attended a forum of homeless people, and one of them remarked that he drew from all sorts of books (e.g., the Bible, the Tao) and went with what "worked" with him spiritually. That sounded to me like chaos! For me, one had to pick a book--preferably the Bible--and accept everything it said about God. Otherwise, that person was making God in his own image, and how could something he made up be reliable or trustworthy (as Tim Keller has pointed out)?

I still hold this view to a certain extent, but I saw that an eclectic approach to spirituality could work when I met an alcohol counselor. He said that he didn't follow a specific religion but drew on a variety of sources. Two that he told me about were Nathaniel Branden's book on self-esteem, and a tape series on anger and forgiveness. He called these sources "powerful." He wasn't necessarily accepting them as inerrant or authoritative, but he believed that they had a certain wisdom on how to approach life and live it successfully. I learned from him that having an eclectic approach to spirituality didn't always have to mean total anarchy.

There are times when I feel as if my negative thoughts are "interrupted." It occurs when I'm grumbling, and a thought enters my mind that's actually constructive, or when I forget about my problems as I watch Lost or Desperate Housewives. I wish they could be interrupted more, to tell you the truth!

3. Cathleen writes about an elderly nun who admires Ingrid Bergman, notwithstanding her sexual scandal. I'm not sure why that stands out to me. Maybe it's because it evokes for me a Reader's Digest view on life--one that admires celebrities and looks for the good in them, even though they don't always do the "right thing." This sort of approach goes beyond the partisanship, cultural wars, and us vs. them mindset that pervades American life. I think of Reader's Digest interviewing Julia Roberts about her family life. Reader's Digest is very conservative, and Julia Roberts is far from being a Christian conservative Republican! Yet, they could see beyond that difference and interact with each other on a human level. Julia probably saw Reader's Digest as an American institution, and Reader's Digest viewed Julia as a part of America's life and a mother who loves her kids. I've seen this sort of thing also among my relatives, many of whom are very conservative. Even they can still say something nice about Ted Kennedy or Al Gore!

4. Somewhere in the book, Cathleen talks about having writer's block. In the course of her struggle, her mind turns to an episode of Friends, in which a character walks through the park in an eccentric manner. Cathleen decides not to worry about phrasing everything right and appeasing an audience, choosing instead to be herself and let the chips fall where they may.

That reminds me of the movie Little Women, with Katherine Hepburn. Jo writes mystery stories for publication, and a kindly middle-aged gentleman tells her that her work is bad. He encourages her not to write anything unless it comes straight from her heart.

Does this work in real life? Not always. Writing is a business, and people need to like someone's work (or at least be affected by it) for the writer to be successful. Sometimes, that can lead to pandering to the least common denominator. At other times, as in Cathleen's case, a person can write from the heart, touch a lot of people, and attain a great deal of success.

Good book!

Another Season 3 for Joan

I found this just now: Ryan Hunter: A Dot Com Millionaire. It's someone's "autobiography" of Ryan Hunter, the rich guy on Joan of Arcadia who saw God and has an ax to grind against him. I've not read it yet, and I'm not even sure if it's finished. But I'm posting it here so I'll have access to it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Evil

What is the source of evil acts? I've been thinking about this today--basing my thoughts on things I've read and seen on television.

I recently resumed my reading of Joan of Arcadia, Season 3. As many of you know, Joan of Arcadia only lasted for two seasons, and the second season had a huge cliffhanger. Consequently, excellent writers have decided to continue the series online, with a virtual Season 3. For the two versions, see here and here.

At the end of Season 2, we meet Ryan Hunter, a rich guy who (like Joan) has encountered God. His main difference from Joan is that he hates the Almighty.

How did he get to be this way? In the first version, God gave Ryan assignments to help people when he was younger, and the assignments interfered with his life and relationships. Ryan didn't feel he could tell his friends about his experiences with God, since even his religious friend deemed such a scenario to be evidence of mental illness. As a result, Ryan became bitter and turned against God.

In the second version, God gives Ryan assignments in his youth, but Ryan turns against God when his girlfriend decides to become a nun. Ryan concludes that God has stolen his girl, and he resolves from that point on to undermine the Almighty. Ryan still has good in him, but he does bad things (i.e., destroying houses of worship).

I didn't see the first scenario as significant enough by itself to turn Ryan against God. After all, Ryan had free will. He didn't have to do the assignments that God gave him. He could have simply stopped carrying them out, without becoming bitter against God.

At first, the second scenario didn't appeal to me either. "Why do writers today have to root everything in romance?," I thought. But, as I contemplated the matter further, I realized that there may be a profound insight about evil here. A Christian thinker once said that evil is making something or someone other than God the object of our worship, and that something or someone may be good.

Take Revenge of the Sith, which is Episode III of Star Wars. Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader in an attempt to prevent his wife's death. His evil began as a pursuit of good.

I was also thinking about evil as I watched Desperate Housewives last night. Orson Hodge has been stealing because he feels emasculated by the success of his millionaire wife, Bree. Here, pride and a low self-image (which can actually co-exist) is the cause of Orson's evil.

Eedie's husband Dave is mad at Mike Delfino because he killed Dave's family in an automobile accident. So Dave pretends to be Mike's best friend and lures him and Mike's girlfriend, Katherine, into the woods. Dave's goal is to kill Katherine and put Mike through the same grief that he has endured. Here, a sense of justice is the root of Dave's evil.

Carlos' ex-girlfriend is the vice-president of his company, and she treats the employees pretty shabbily. She makes them work long hours, and she yells at Carlos' kids, thinking they belong to a Latino cleaning lady. She feels she has to be ruthless to make the company compete. Here, ambition and stress are the causes of her evil.

What can lead to goodness? I'm not sure. In another sub-plot of last night's episode, Susan has compassion on her lawyer ex-husband as he experiences what he put her through years earlier: his wife left him to raise a child on his own. Susan could have been happy at this "justice," but she had moved on years before, plus she didn't want anyone to have to endure that kind of pain. She saw her husband as human, so she felt bad for him. Moving on. Letting time heal. Using pain as a means to become compassionate. Take from this what you will!

In the case of Ryan Hunter, I can understand why he is upset--in both versions of Season 3! Perhaps he should've focused on the fact that his assignments from God were helping people.

More on Clones

For background, see Altruism and Jesus Clones.

Felix links to an article on his blog that criticizes a common Christian claim: that Christians should give up themselves. In "Altruism," I discussed this in light of altruism. In "Jesus Clones," I referred to the belief of many Christians that all of us should be like Jesus, which, for many, means happy-happy extroversion.

Here I want to talk about the Christian belief that everyone should believe the exact same way. For me, life is interesting because it has different people with different beliefs. The different ways that people get through life are of interest to me.

There is a strong part of me that likes John Hick's view on religious pluralism: that God interacts with people through various religions, making them better people through his grace. Or, as "God" said in Joan of Arcadia, God made different people, so there are different ways of relating to him.

At Harvard, a teaching assistant defined Thomas Jefferson's view on religion as follows: different religions are like different flavors of ice cream. As long as you're kind to others, you can pick whatever flavor you prefer.

I wonder if there are insights that non-Christian religions have that Christianity does not emphasize as much. Buddhism, for instance, talks about non-attachment as a key to happiness. I guess Christianity has that concept in some way, shape, or form, but Buddhism expresses it in its own unique fashion. As a result, I'm not sure if I'd call Buddhism superfluous.

On the other hand, is it wrong for all of us to believe the same way on certain things--how we should treat one another, for example. And not all of the religions can be right in their truth claims, right? Truth is truth. Shouldn't everyone believe in the truth, whatever that may be?

Is there a way for Christianity to be true, while preserving and celebrating the diversity of life, particularly people's different worldviews?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jesus Clones

This is a continuation of my post on Altruism. There, I discuss an article that Felix quoted by an Adventist critiquing a prominent view within Christianity: that Christians should give up the self.

Like a lot of critics of Christianity, I wonder if being a Christian requires me to give up my individuality. We're all supposed to be like Jesus, right? And Jesus was a cheerful extrovert who reached out to people.

This criticism was around in C.S. Lewis' day, for he addresses it in Mere Christianity. He says that becoming a Christian means we can be ourselves more, not less.

At the present time, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I'm not a cheerful extrovert who reaches out to people. I just don't have that within me. A lot of times when I do so, I am wearing a social mask. So me being like Jesus is not the same as me being myself, in terms of acting according to my nature.

At the same time, that's not entirely true, since my reserved demeanor in public is not entirely who I am. I'd like to share myself with others, but it's hard to get my voice in.

One other thought: I flinch at the idea of being an evangelical Jesus clone. But why would I want to be a world-clone: caring about what the world cares about, evaluating my worth according to the world's standards (e.g., money, education, how many women I can get into bed)?

Is there a way to be like Jesus while also being an individual?

A Goofy Republican Argument

I'm watching This Week on ABC, and Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) says he voted against taxing the AIG bonus because the measure distracts attention from the Democrats botching things up.

I agree that the Democrats botched things up, since Senator Chris Dodd and Treasury Secretary Geither consciously allowed the bonus to happen. Republicans do well to point that out.

But is playing the blame game an adequate reason to vote against taxing the bonus? That's what makes no sense to me. Okay, the Democrats made a mistake, but now they're trying to come up with a way to address it. And the Republican reason for voting against it is that they want the Democrats to keep getting blamed?

I'd rather the Republicans use Rush Limbaugh's approach: the bonus represents business as usual, so it's not bad. I'm not sure if I agree with Rush on this, but it's better than "Don't tax the benefits because we should be blaming the Democrats rather than doing something about the problem."

Personally, I bet most of the Republican politicians agree with Rush, but they can't say that because of public outrage over the bonuses. "Let's blame the Democrats" sounds better than "the bonuses are okay," as illogical as that may be.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Obama and Guantanamo

The AP has a puzzling story, Obama criticizes some Guantanamo release decisions. It states, "Obama says in a broadcast interview that some of the people released from the facility in Cuba have rejoined terrorist groups. He also says U.S. officials have not always been effective in determining which prisoners will be a danger once they are let go."

But who decided to close Guantanamo? And, while I doubt Obama has the time to comb through the list of detainees, does the buck fall somewhere within his Administration?

Skewed Bible Movie

This goes back to Russell Miller's comment under my post, Hard-Headed Practical Wisdom, in which he says that television often offers a skewed picture of life. I'm watching a Bible movie about Jacob right now, and Leah doesn't look all that bad! I guess all the movie stars who auditioned for that role were glamorous.

Altruism

Felix has a thought-provoking link in his latest blog post, Another splendid article from Spectrum online. The Spectrum is a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist publication, which I know because I attended the New York Metro Adventist Forum when I went to Jewish Theological Seminary.

The article is entitled "Getting Rid of Self and Revival Religion," written by Harold Weiss. Felix quotes the following passage:

I have been a member of the Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Berrien Springs since it was organized in 1973. I have attended worship services in other churches in the area only on rare occasions. A few weeks ago, however, I could not attend my church because I was sick. On such occasions, I listen to the worship service at Pioneer Memorial Church, which the Andrews University radio station broadcasts by radio. Since I did not have the church bulletin and the radio made no announcements, I did not find out who was the guest preacher. It certainly was not Dwight Nelson, whose style is inimitable.

It pains me to confess that I was unable to listen to the full sermon. I was so upset by what I heard that I turned the radio off sometime before the end. The sermon I was listening to was in no way original; I have heard dozens of different versions of this sermon. The sermon impresses on everyone the necessity to get rid of self in order to become a Christian. Thus, it turns out to be a masochistic exercise whose purpose is to make the listeners feel spiritually sick and bad about themselves. This, it is hoped, will motivate them to raise their hands, stand up, or pass to the front of the church in order to declare their intention to live the Christian life with God. It is necessary to cast self aside in order for Christ to come in. The sentence that stayed with me that Sabbath morning is: “If you don’t get rid of self, you cannot love God.”

This way of looking at the Christian life is in direct opposition to the message of Jesus. According to him, it is absolutely necessary to be in full possession of self and be able to use all its faculties to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The standard by which we should evaluate our love of our neighbors is the measure of our love for ourselves. In other words, what Jesus taught is exactly the opposite of what this preacher told his listeners that Sabbath. Only he who loves self can love God and neighbor.

Like Harold Weiss, I have been baffled by Christian cliches about denying myself and putting others first. When I was a teen, a formative figure in my Christian development was John MacArthur, who said that the Gospel was about denying sin and self. When I was a student at Harvard and attended an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church, a kind lady said that our priorities should be (1.) God first, (2.) our families second, and (3.) ourselves last. And the Bible has passages that can be fit into that sort of worldview. Mark 8:34: "And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (KJV). Philippians 2:3: "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves."

Esteem others as better than myself? Of course I'm going to put myself first! When I did my homework, I did my homework, not other people's. I was perfectly willing to help people, mind you, but the majority of my time was spent on my own tasks. And I don't apologize for that. Why should I? Isn't that how a lot of people do things? They don't give all of their income away, after all!

When I was at DePauw University, I encountered the writings of Ayn Rand. I was drawn to Ayn because of her libertarian views on government and the economy, but her views on religion baffled and challenged me. Her problem with religion was not just that one can't prove the existence of God and that Christian theism has illogical concepts (e.g., the Trinity, original sin). She didn't care much for Christian altruism, either! That shocked me, since most atheists I knew acknowledged a belief in Christian morality (e.g, love, kindness, generosity), while expressing problems with Christian dogma.

Ayn didn't care for the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and she flinched at the notion that we should sacrifice ourselves for others. The villains in her story were collectivists who appealed to these mantras to redistribute people's hard-earned wealth. One point of hers that I liked concerned altruism. She said that the debate over altruism is about who gets the goodies, ourselves or others. If we're not entitled to goodies, she asked, then why should we assume that others are? Makes a lot of sense!

I don't think Ayn was crass and totally selfish. She believed in trickle-down economics, which assumed that most would benefit from the innovation of entrepreneurs. As far as I know, she was also open to people voluntarily helping others. She just didn't care for the notion that we should always take second place, or that the government should force us to be our brother's keeper.

In terms of my day-to-day life, I try to abide by what a woman told me at AA (sort of): "Ours is a selfish program, not a self-centered program." Or, as Philippians 2:4 has it, "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." (The "also" is in brackets in the Greek, so I wonder if it's in the original.) Of course I'm going to think about myself, but am I thinking only of myself? That's the question that challenges me, not unrealistic views that I shouldn't think of myself at all!

Overall, I think this is what the Bible teaches, when we look beyond a literalistic interpretation of individual passages. When the Bible says that we should esteem others as better than ourselves, it's in the context of avoiding strife, which stems from pride. I can think of myself in my day-to-day life, but not in a manner that devalues others or assumes that I'm the end-all-be-all.

The Bible often encourages us with promises of rewards, or an affirmation of God's love for us. Why would it do this, if we're not supposed to think of ourselves at all?

At the same time, I think the Bible is clear that we should believe in a cause greater than ourselves. The New Testament presents believers giving their lives for Jesus Christ. Christ loves us and blesses us, but ultimately he and what he stands for are more important than we are.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hard-Headed Practical Wisdom

Source: Tom Perrota, The Abstinence Teacher (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007) 106, 141.

On and off for the next few days, I'll be commenting on my favorite passages from this book. Its author looks so familiar to me, but I can't place him! The back flap says that he lives in Boston, so maybe I saw him while I was living there. Or perhaps I saw him on TV, or he looks like someone I know.

So far, I'm really enjoying this book! It has all sorts of characters. There's the lonely divorcee teacher (Ruth) who doesn't like the abstinence-only sex ed program she's forced to use. Then there's the vulnerable recovering addict (Tim), also a divorcee, who's part of the ultra-conservative church that persecutes Ruth. One message that comes through in this book is that everyone has a story, something we should remember in our age of polarization and stereotypes.

Today, I want to deal with two quotes:

1. Pastor Dennis wants Tim to marry a nice Christian girl in the congregation-- "for Tim to remove himself from the temptations of bachelorhood, to stop questioning himself and his commitment to Jesus, to bind himself to someone who shared his faith and his priorities, and to get on with his life as a father, husband, and servant of the Lord." Pastor Dennis cites I Corinthians 7:1-2, which says that it's better for a man to marry than to burn.

Tim's reaction: It was a weird verse, Tim thought, encouraging marriage not as a good thing in itself, but simply as the best of bad alternatives. Hardly the stuff of love songs. And yet, like a lot of stuff in the Bible, it possessed a kind of hardheaded wisdom that resonated with his experience of the world and his circumstances at the present moment.

This quote resonates with me. In my opinion, a lot of the Bible has a hard-hearted practical wisdom to it. Watch yourself! Don't retaliate against your enemy! Love, don't hate! Don't sleep with anyone and everyone, but reserve sex for your wife. These ideas can bring health and happiness to a person, or they can at least keep one out of unnecessary trouble!

This quote reminds me of Jamie Kiley's posts, Original sin: This story resonates and Why I am a Christian. Jamie says she's a Christian because the Bible corresponds with what she observes in real life. From what she can see, people have something within them that inclines them to evil, just as the Bible presents!

2. Tim is thinking about the topic of homosexuality. Although his church preaches vehemently against it, Tim doesn't see what the big deal is. We learn that Tim once knew a gay person, who for years tried hard not to be gay! Tim observes that Jesus doesn't say anything about homosexuality in the Gospels.

Tim's thoughts: It seemed like a glaring omission, considering that Jesus had a fair amount to say on other points of sexual morality, including one that was particularly inconvenient for Tim: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery." You couldn't get much clearer than that, and yet Pastor Dennis hadn't objected to Tim's marriage to Carrie, far from it. He'd just let the whole remarriage-adultery thing slide, tempering God's harsh law with a dose of human compassion. Tim couldn't help feeling like gay people deserved a similar break, a recognition that a choice between a life of sin and a life of celibacy was no choice at all.

This quote resonates with me because, although the Bible has a hard-headed wisdom to it, it also appears to be utterly unrealistic in its demands! Don't lust after women? Don't hate? Don't divorce? What if a husband and a wife simply don't get along? I can see a certain logic even to these commands, since lust dehumanizes women, plus it would be nice if we could be so loving that we'd stick with someone unconditionally--till death do us part! After all, divorce can have a negative impact on children and women (as I'm seeing as I watch First Wives Club). But I'm not sure if I have that kind of love within me.

I don't think the author gives a fair shake to the evangelical view on divorce. This is puzzling because he says in the "Acknowledgements" that he went to a Promised Keepers' weekend. Sure, there are pastors who leave their wives for younger babes and keep on pastoring, without objection by the church. And most of the men and women on my Christian dating site are divorced. But many of them would say that their divorce and subsequent pursuit of a mate are biblical, since their mate was not a Christian. He either left them or cheated on them, and, according to I Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19:9, those are legitimate grounds for divorce.

Some argue that a Christian should not remarry, a view that goes back to the second century C.E. Christian writing, the Shepherd of Hermas (see Shepherd of Hermas on Divorce). But I heard Ron Dart appeal to human grounds this week in his critique of such a view, for he said that people crave companionship with other human beings. Why shouldn't this apply to homosexuals as well? Why should they have to be celibate for the rest of their lives? Is this practical or realistic? Does it take into consideration how people are?

At the same time, I wouldn't want to say that people should just follow their attractions wherever they lead, since that can result in all sorts of anarchy!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Frasier: Tool Time, Memory

Yesterday, I watched two episodes of Frasier that got me thinking and not just laughing!

1. Frasier is on a date with a woman, and Niles and Daphne are tagging along. (This is when they're a couple.) Frasier's car breaks down, and he doesn't know how to fix it. Daphne solves the problem, and Frasier's date doesn't want anything more to do with him. Frasier concludes that women like men who can fix things.

As a result, Frasier and Niles decide to take an auto-mechanics class. At first, they suck up to their instructor, Randy. But they get discouraged when they find that they have no interest or aptitude in auto-mechanics. Even a woman who knew nothing about cars is progressing faster than they are! When Randy tells Frasier and Niles to come in early the next morning so they can be his "special project," they take offense at the implication that they are remedials. Frasier went to Harvard, and Niles went to Yale, after all!

Daphne and Marty (the father of Frasier and Niles) really want them to get their certificate, so Niles and Frasier plug along in order to impress them. When Roz tells them that they only have to pass to get the diploma, they decide to become underachieving class clowns, writing each other notes in French. Frasier and Niles are then kicked out of the class, and they go to a local Kinko's (or something like that) to get fake diplomas.

This got me thinking about how many of us flinch at being labeled "remedial." Frasier and Niles could have learned more about auto-mechanics had their pride not gotten in the way. Sure, they'd have to put up with the indignity of being Randy's "special project," but at least they would have learned. And, while Randy was clearly annoyed with Frasier and Niles, he was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to help them.

Another point: Even if Frasier and Niles had gotten their certificate, what use would it have been if they still couldn't fix a car? I was expecting the end of the story to be that Frasier and Niles would get their certificates and then find themselves in a position where they'd have to apply their newfound knowledge, which didn't exist because they just "coasted." This reminds me of a point Robert Kiyosaki made in Rich Brother Rich Sister: Many of us tend to focus a lot on grades or credentials, when we should be concentrating on learning. That's a challenge to me!

2. Frasier is at a science fiction convention, and he sees an actor (Jackson) who inspired his and Nile's interest in Shakespeare when they were kids. The actor now plays a legendary android in a popular science fiction series. Outraged that a great man has been reduced to this level, Frasier and Niles decide to put on a show in which the actor displays his Shakespearean talent.

When they see that the guy stinks, they conclude that he must be rusty, since he hasn't done Shakespeare in years. Niles then brings an old tape of his acting when Frasier and Niles were kids, and he stinks there too! "He has no instinct--just stink," Frasier remarks. Frasier and Niles remembered him as impressive, but their impression is different now that they see him with adult eyes, after years of exposure to finer actors.

There's some deep lesson in this, but I can't pin down what. What's this say about our memory or our growth? There are probably things that used to impress me that don't really anymore. I still think I should honor them in some fashion. I wish that Frasier gave a little speech that at least recognized that Jackson inspired their interest in drama, and he deserved their gratitude for that accomplishment.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson

I'm sad to learn that actress Natasha Richardson has passed away.

I've seen Natasha Richardson in a few movies, but the one that sticks out to me the most is the remake of the Parent Trap, which starred Lyndsey Lohan and Dennis Quaid. She played the mother of the twins, and her character conveyed sophistication, class, beauty, warmth, and love--all rolled up into one!

I'm especially sad because I like her husband, Liam Neeson. Not only is he a fine actor who has a special place in my heart as the voice of Aslan from Chronicles of Narnia, but he's a solid Catholic, and he has raised his children to be Catholics. It's refreshing when someone in Hollywood practices the Christian faith.

I'm not sure what Natasha Richardson's ideology was, but she had a special interest in fighting AIDS, since her father died of AIDS-related causes in 1991.

My thoughts and prayers are with her loved ones.

Gratitude

At church last Sunday, the priest was talking about gratitude. This isn't the priest who normally speaks at my Latin mass, the one who talks about philosophy and Latin and Aquinas and the church fathers. This one likes to talk about politics (e.g., Freedom of Choice Act).

The priest convicted me when he told of the many young people who have confessed to him that they didn't show their parents the gratitude that they deserved. But the priest then went on to apply the issue of gratitude to other areas.

He said that Pope Benedict was being magnanimous when he accepted the Holocaust-denying bishop back into the Catholic fold, but people are ungrateful to him for that. I can understand this priest's perspective, since I doubt that Benedict was meaning to endorse Holocaust denial in his action. He was just trying to be nice. But what's this have to do with gratitude? The one who should be grateful to Benedict is the Holocaust-denying bishop, since he's the one who received the favor. Why should those who didn't receive the favor be grateful?

The priest then talked about a Connecticut bill that would place control of the Catholic church in state hands. He mentioned that those who are sponsoring it are Catholic politicians. Here these people are, educated in Catholic schools and reared in the church, and they go out and try to put control of the church in the hand of outsiders. For the priest, this exemplifies ingratitude!

Again, I agree with the priest's political stance here. However one defines separation of church and state, many agree that the concept should protect the church from the state. But, as I listened to the sermon, I realized that there had to be another side to this issue, since my religious background includes a church (the Worldwide Church of God) that misused people's money, which prompted the state of California to intervene. (60 Minutes did a special on this in 1979! See Stanley Rader with Mike Wallace). I doubt that the supporters of this Connecticut bill want the state to intervene for no reason at all. And, sure enough, I found that they support state intervention because they believe the church has mishandled funds and cases of sexual abuse by the clergy.

The priest then brought up stem-cell research, noting that the most prominent supporters of this practice are Catholic politicians: Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. Where is their gratitude?, he wondered. Look, I'm not too crazy about stem-cell research. I don't think we need to destroy embryos these days for research to advance, since we've found ways to circumvent that. But how are Biden and Pelosi being ungrateful to the church? They probably believe that embryonic stem cells are more flexible than other ones, and that actually using the embryos to cure diseases is better than throwing them in the garbage. Does gratitude have to mean "My church, right and wrong"?

According to many reports, the Bush Administration was all about loyalty. I agree that there were ex-insiders who tried to make a name for themselves by trashing the Administration. But is disagreement with Bush an act of disloyalty? Can one be loyal to the President without saying, "My President, right and wrong"?

The same goes with families. I think of the scene in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, in which Sidney Poitier's dad told his son not to marry his white fiancee because "I brought you up and supported you." For Sidney's dad (on the movie), gratitude meant doing what the dad said. And, indeed, we should be grateful. But we're individuals, and we're not always going to see eye-to-eye with another person. Does gratitude to one's family mean "My family, right and wrong?"

Overall, I think that the answer to this whole dilemma is love: a concern for the well-being of other people. (So I guess this is my two-cents for that post on As Bereans Did, Love: Emotion? Or Not? ~from a contributing writer). Are liberal Catholics trying to undermine the church when they disagree with it? Were dissenters within the Bush Administration primarily seeking to make a name for themselves when they publicly disagreed with the President? Do sons and daughters express their disagreements in an unkind manner, seeking to hurt their loved ones and make them feel bad? The same question can apply to friendships as well.

I was just thinking about these issues this week. I'm not saying that they directly apply to me, since my parents haven't equated gratitude with absolute obedience to them. But the issue does pop up in television, books, etc.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11

I have a book that contains four views on the Book of Revelation, but it's underneath an avalanche of religion books, so I don't have ready access to it. Consequently, I'll be writing some of this post from memory.

In Revelation 11, we encounter the mysterious two witnesses. They prophesy for 1,260 days clothed in sackcloth, incinerate anyone who tries to hurt them, shut up the heavens like Elijah (see I Kings 17), and turn the waters into blood and bring down plagues like Moses (Exodus 7ff.). When they are finished with their testimony, the Beast kills them, and they lie in the streets of Sodom and Egypt, the place where Jesus was crucified (i.e., Jerusalem). The world throws a party because it's glad they are dead, but God raises them up after 3 and 1/2 days.

There are various interpretations of the identity of the two witnesses. Within Armstrongite circles, many claim that they're a prominent Armstrongite leader (e.g., Ron Weinland, Roderick Meredith, etc.). Adventists see them as the Scriptures or the church that proclaims them. I'm not sure how they take into account all of the factors listed in Revelation 11, but I have an idea for some of them. For many adherents to this view, the two witnesses resemble Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets (the Scriptures). According to Adventists, the Beast (or papacy, for Adventists) suppresses the Bible, and the 1,260 days are actually 1,260 years, since there are places in Scripture in which a day can represent a year (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6).

I once asked someone who equated the two witnesses with the Bible how the Bible could incinerate people, and he replied that those who disobey the Scriptures will suffer the fire of God's wrath. In that sense, those who try to assault the law and the prophets will get burned.

Nowadays, there are Christians who actually equate the two witnesses with Moses and Elijah, as if they'll come to earth in the latter days. Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins do so in the Left Behind series. And I do believe that I heard Ron Dart do this on a recent Born to Win broadcast. I'd rather Armstrongites claim this than identify two of their own leaders as the two witnesses!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ron Silver

I just read that Ron Silver has died of cancer at the young age of 62. Ron played Bruno on the West Wing, a political strategist who helped the Democratic Bartlett campaign and later the Republican Vinick campaign.

On one episode, Bruno gave a dramatic speech lamenting that "liberal" has become a dirty word. I could think of a couple of reasons that such was the case, but what interested me was that Ron Silver himself was a supporter of George W. Bush, notwithstanding his Democratic past. Silver supported Bush on terror issues. Before I even got into the West Wing, I saw Silver on MSNBC after the second Presidential debate, taking on Ron Reagan alongside Pat Buchanan (who supported Bush despite the terror issues). According to an article I read, Ron had trouble finding work on account of his political stances, and his fellow West Wing cast-members liked to chant “Ron, Ron, the neo-con” whenever he entered the room.

Rumor has it that Silver visited Redeemer Presbyterian Church once with Ann Coulter, so he may have been spiritually searching.

My best to him and his family.

Zechariah and the Two Witnesses

Source: Veronica Chater, Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009) 237.

The Group had the spirit of True Catholicism. The group was Catholicism. They were the phoenix sprung up from the embers of the post-Vatican II pile of rubble. And their leader was a kind of prophet; a witness. God had promised Zerubbabel, the prince of Judah, two witnesses--one religious and one political--to the crimes committed by humanity against him and his Church. Archbishop Lefebvre was the religious witness. Now Dad had found the political one: Dr. Plinio. The Crusades of the twentieth century had begun. The war cry had been sounded.

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit on the two witnesses, for Veronica Chater did two things that I usually don't see in Armstrongite circles: (1.) she tried to read it in light of its biblical context, the Book of Zechariah, and (2.) she appreciated Zechariah's implication that there would be a political witness and a religious witness.

As far as I know (and my knowledge is limited), the only other person who's done that is Fred Coulter of the Christian Biblical Church of God. I remember listening to a taped sermon by him on the two witnesses, and he said that Zechariah 4 identifies them as Zerrubabel and Joshua the high priest. In the Book of Zechariah, they are the ones God anoints to carry on his work of restoring the temple and Jerusalem. My impression is that most biblical scholars would agree with this interpretation of Zechariah 4.

But both Coulter and Veronica Chater's traditional Catholicism (which she no longer holds) want Zechariah 4 to apply to the future, not just the time of Zerubbabel and Joshua. Consequently, Coulter makes Zerrubabel and Joshua a type of the coming two witnesses. For Coulter, one would be a political leader like Zerubbabel, and the other would be the high priest, who would miraculously convert to Christ.

Chater's traditional Catholicism, however, takes a slightly different approach. For her, God promised Zerubbabel that God would raise up two witnesses who would confront the church. She's reading the Old Testament as many Christians do (albeit not the literalistic dispensationalists): as non-literal, spiritual, and related to the church. In this interpretative framework, Israel and the temple represent the church, so that's how Chater can see the Catholic church in Zechariah 4.

The problem is that Zechariah 4 does not explicitly say that there will be a political witness and a religious witness. It's likely that it means that, since Zerubbabel and Joshua appear to be the two witnesses in that chapter. But Chater does not seem to acknowledge that point, for, in her scenario, God is speaking to Zerubbabel about two future witnesses, not ones that exist in his time (including himself). Coulter solves this problem by making Zerubbabel and Joshua types of the future witnesses. For Coulter, Zerubbabel and Joshua were the two witnesses of their time, but there will be two witnesses like them in the future. That's how he arrives at the conclusion that there will be a political witness and a religious witness. But how is Chatel reaching that conclusion?

Another point in which Coulter and Chater differ: Coulter sees the two witnesses as end-times figures. For him, they will appear together in the end to challenge the Beast and the false prophet. For Chatel, however, they don't necessarily appear together in the same period of time, since one was Archbishop Lefebvre, who made his stand against Vatican II in the 1960's. And the other is Dr. Plinio, who supposedly emerged at a prophet years later. In this scenario, much of history is the "end-times." My understanding is that this is the Adventist understanding of prophecy: the Beast and the two witnesses have been around for centuries, meaning that they're not just figures who pop out of nowhere in the very last days of human history.

But the position that Chater presents is not the only traditionalist Catholic view on eschatology, for, as I wrote more than a year ago in my post Catholic Eschatology, the priest at the Latin mass I attend sees the Antichrist and the two witnesses as future figures, meaning they do not exist yet.

I hope this post enhances understanding or appreciation of the different ways people approach prophecy. Have a nice day!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Waiting for the Apocalypse

Source: Veronica Chater, Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009) 237.

The Group had the spirit of True Catholicism. The group was Catholicism. They were the phoenix sprung up from the embers of the post-Vatican II pile of rubble. And their leader was a kind of prophet; a witness. God had promised Zerubbabel, the prince of Judah, two witnesses--one religious and one political--to the crimes committed by humanity against him and his Church. Archbishop Lefebvre was the religious witness. Now Dad had found the political one: Dr. Plinio. The Crusades of the twentieth century had begun. The war cry had been sounded.

Chater's book is about her experience growing up in an ultra-conservative Catholic family. Her father, Lyle Arnold, Jr. (see here for some of his writings), was disappointed with Vatican II because of its non-opposition to Communism, its openness to Freemasonry, its ecumenicism, its relativism, and its abandonment of traditional Catholic customs. As a result, he carried his family to Portugal and back in search of a traditional Latin mass, and he was continually warning his children about Mary's impending chastisement of the world for the sin of Vatican II, in fulfillment of the Lady's third revelation to the children of Fatima, which the Catholic Church had kept a secret. According to Chater, her family believed that people would revert to medieval culture after the chastisement.

The quote above encapsulates Lyle's perspective. He viewed Archbishop Lefebvre as a hero because he was one of the few dissenters from Vatican II, against such figures as Joseph Ratzinger, our current pope. While there are Catholics who think Benedict is too conservative, this gentleman doesn't believe he's conservative enough, as a perusal of his writings would indicate!

Chatel also talks as if there was a militaristic aspect to her father's beliefs. Lyle sent his two boys to a Catholic boot camp, which would prepare them to be holy warriors for the traditional Catholic faith and against Communism. The priests at the services her family attended made sure a firearm was always nearby!

The book was a fun and educational read for a variety of reasons. First, as some of you may know, I attend a traditional Latin mass, though I have yet to see a priest carrying a firearm, plus the priest at my church actually speaks highly of Pope Benedict! The object of Lyle's search is something I experience every week. Much of the service is in Latin. The priest's back is to the congregation. There's no passing of the peace. The women wear head-coverings. People are lined up for confession prior to the service. The priest promotes traditional customs, such as eating fish rather than meat on Fridays. So it was neat to see a correspondence between what the book was describing and my personal experiences.

Second, I actually kind of liked Lyle as I read this book. Although he carried his family through pretty bad experiences in his religious fervor, he wasn't at all abusive to his children. When his daughter asked him about Vatican II, he freely laid out to her his perspective. He reminded me of Patti Davis' description of Ronald Reagan: he loved giving lectures to his kids--about history, politics, religion--all sorts of heavy topics! And, although he held a lot of conspiracy theories, he had quite a body of knowledge--about history, religion, philosophy, and other areas. When he was planning to move his family to France and Portugal, he diligently sat in his personal study (the Womb) and listened to French and Portuguese tapes! He had a lot of interesting ideas, for he was skeptical about American egalitarianism, plus he sided with the South in his analysis of the Civil War. I was expecting to read that he thought Hitler was a heroic bulwark against Communism, but (fortunately) I was wrong, for he had a falling out with a friend who had Nazi sympathies. Reading Lyle's views made the book worthwhile all by itself!

Third, the book got me thinking about the content of Christianity. I've encountered different brands of Christianity. Some proclaim justice for the poor. Some criticize abortion and homosexuality and view God as a Republican. Some focus on spirituality. Some are a combination of these elements. As far as I could see, Lyle's Christianity was anti-Communist, socially conservative, and ritualistic. He believed that God was good, for he actually said to his daughter that eternal torment in hell must be a good thing because God is inherently good. But I didn't see much in his theology about social justice or helping the poor. He did well to oppose godless Communism, an unjust system that killed millions of people. But I was disappointed not to see the poor somewhere in his religion, especially given their prominence in the Old and New Testaments. Maybe they're in traditional Catholicism somewhere, but I haven't encountered that theme yet. Or maybe I have and I don't remember.

Fourth, the personal dimension of the book was captivating: the mother's desire to hold the family together, the kids' attempt to adapt to Portugal, Veronica struggling to survive after her father kicked her out of the house for sexual immorality, her discovery of a God of love as she was falling out of a tree, her brothers telling her about their bad experiences in Catholic boot-camp as they smoked a joint (which I do not endorse, but that's what they did).

Fifth, I could identify with parts of the book because of my experience in Armstrongism, or, more accurately, the experiences of people I know in Armstrongism. "You don't need to go to college because the chastisement is soon." That sounds awfully familiar to you ex-Armstrongites, doesn't it?! How about having church in unconventional places, like malls and garages? Or just appearing to be all-out weird to the rest of the world! Recovering Armstrongites may or may not know much about traditional Catholicism, but Veronica's experiences would resonate with many of them.

Now let's turn to the opening quote about the two witnesses. It stood out to me because Veronica grasped a nuance about them: that one is a religious leader, and the other is a political leader. That's something I first heard from Fred Coulter (an Armstrongite), who postulated that the two witnesses would be a political leader and a priest, as Zerubbabel and Joshua were in the time of Zechariah.

I could go on about the two witnesses, but I may save that for another post, maybe tomorrow. Have a nice day!

Update: The link to Lyle's articles doesn't work, but I found them by googling "Lyle Arnold Jr." Enjoy!

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