Thursday, April 30, 2009

Another Joan, Season 3

I found this on a Joan of Arcadia fan site--the one where MShaffer has his stories. It's another Season 3 of Joan, and it looks lengthy and well-written:

http://www.fanfiction.net/u/963303/CharlesTheBold

This should satisfy my Joan palate for a while! Before I get to that, though, I want to read MShaffer's newest story, The Child, Part 2.

Obama, Lost, Unusuals

Last night, I watched three things: President Obama's press conference, the one-hundredth episode of Lost, and the Unusuals. Here are my reactions:

1. I liked some of the things that President Obama was saying. He said that signing the Freedom of Choice Act is not a priority for him, since he wants to focus more on reducing the number of abortions. Rather than encouraging anger over this issue, his goal is to work on what both sides can agree upon, and he said that he's working with groups from both the pro-choice camp and also the pro-life camp. Obama also stated that pro-choicers are wrong to treat abortion solely as an issue of "women's freedom." He's not Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but at least this is something!

Obama also stated that he's willing to find common ground with Republicans on health care. For example, he said that he agrees with Senator Mitch McConnell that the cost of medical malpractice insurance should be reduced. Is this tort reform? If so, then Obama is courageously bucking his own party!

2. Lost was pretty gut-wrenching. For one, young Eloise Hawking in 1975 shoots her son from the future, Daniel Faraday. Also, Sawyer and Juliet were found out by the Dharma Initiative.

I wonder why Eloise couldn't have simply told Daniel not to point a gun at Richard Alpert in 1975, since that's what incited young Eloise to shoot Daniel. Also, while the theme of Lost for quite some time has been that you can't change the past ("What happened, happened"), it turns out that Faraday now says that you can. He was focusing on the constants and not the variables! Now, Faraday wants to prevent the electromagnetic overload (or something like that) that brought the Oceanic plane to the island in the first place. So can Hurley now rewrite Empire Strikes Back?

3. I liked the Unusuals because it looked at the Christian cop, who was once a criminal. He was trying to get a new start on life, yet he was willing to go to jail for what he did. Fortunately, a cop who found out about his criminal past is allowing him to make his new beginning, even though he will still be watching him.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

God on Trial

I watched God on Trial this past Saturday night. God on Trial is about concentration camp inmates who conduct a trial of God, charging him with neglecting his covenant with the Jewish people by allowing the Nazis to persecute and kill them.

The speeches are powerful, and each subsequent speech makes the one before it appear shallow and empty. An elderly pious gentleman says that the Jews are being tested, and that they must pass their test of faith as their ancestors did before them. This kind of gave me a cozy feeling, as if we're all a part of something that extends back for many generations. But later speeches cast doubt on such piety. Some asked why bad things happened to good people, and why God couldn't use less brutal means to accomplish his righteous purposes. An educated Jew questioned the whole idea of the Jews' chosenness, since why would God favor a small group of people in such a vast universe? There was also some back-and-forth on Intelligent Design.

Unbelief also got scrutinized. A man who had lost his two sons said that he still felt God's refreshing presence, even though he was disappointed with God. One of the judges told a powerful story about how he didn't even know he was a Jew until the Nazis arrested him, and he urged the Jewish people not to let the Nazis take their God away from them, as the Nazis had taken away everything else. Right when we think that this is the last word, a man who's been quiet throughout the movie suddenly opens his mouth and denounces the atrocities of God in the Hebrew Bible: "God was never good. He was cruel. He just happened to be on our side. Now, he's on the side of our enemies."

In response to the last man's speech, the court finds God guilty of violating his covenant with Israel. The Nazis then storm into the quarters to take the weak to the gas chamber. As this occurs, the Jews pray to God. The end of the movie is set several years into the future, and a group of Jews tours the concentration camp. "Was their prayer answered?," a young woman asks an old man. "It must have been," he replied. "We're still here."

Two issues that I thought about as I watched this movie were (1.) limited perspective and (2.) collective versus individual punishment.

Let's start with (1.), limited perspective. I got to watch this movie with the knowledge of how things turned out: the Nazis got defeated, and the Jews survived as a people and received their own nation. From a larger perspective, justice prevailed, and God kept his promise to preserve the Jewish nation.

Many believers like to say that we can't judge God because we don't know the end from the beginning, and God sees and knows more than we do. Maybe there's some truth to that, but I'm not sure if it makes the whole problem of theodicy magically disappear. The Jews in the concentration camps still endured a horrible experience, and many of them didn't even survive the ordeal. I can't imagine what that would be like--living a normal life one day, then the next day being separated from my family and placed in a concentration camp, with little hope of seeing my loved ones ever again. Can anything justify that, even a larger picture?

(2.) The man who lambasted the God of the Hebrew Bible made good points. He said that God had the option not to kill the Egyptians, since he could have easily blocked their path with the waters of the Red Sea rather than drowning them. He asked if the mothers of the dead Egyptian firstborn believed that the Hebrew God was just and kind. He noted that God did not punish David and Bathsheba for their adultery and murder of Uriah, but instead he killed their child with a slow death. Some of his details were incorrect, as when he said that God was unhappy with Saul for sparing the Kenites in I Samuel 15. But many of them were right on the money.

My question is this: Would the enemies of the Israelites who experienced God's wrath have deemed the Hebrew God to be unjust? We live in a time when the guilty individual is the one who's punished for his crime. We see this sort of mindset in the Ten Commandments movie with Dougray Scott. The Pharaoh says to Moses, "Your problem is with me, so punish me, not the entire Egyptian nation!" And Moses' step-brother (Sayid on Lost) wonders why God had to kill his (Sayid's) firstborn son. When Aaron tells him that the Egyptians slew all the male babies of Israel several years before, Sayid was not convinced of God's justice: "I didn't know about that! My son wasn't even there!" The premise of the movie is that God is wrong to punish the innocent with the guilty, since what matters is individual guilt.

But I'm not sure if the ancients saw things that way, at least not totally. Their mindset was more collective. In the Code of Hammurabi, there is a law in which a man's son is put to death for the sins of his father. So, from a collective point of view, the people of Egypt suffered on account of Pharaoh's hardness of heart because he was their leader, who stood for the entire nation. Similarly, the Egyptians could suffer and die for the sins of their ancestors because they were all part of the same people, who prospered and suffered together. The Egyptians may not have liked what Israel's God did to them, but they probably accepted his actions as the rules of the game, in which people are treated as a collective and not just as individuals.

Within the Hebrew Bible, the Deuteronomist argues against this sort of mindset, as he affirms that people should suffer for their own sins rather than the sins of others (e.g., their ancestors). Ezekiel writes lengthy essays in favor of this view (Ezekiel 18). But their emphasis on the guilt of the individual probably went against the grain of society, which tended to emphasize the collective.

Was God interacting with people based on their own cultural mindsets, even as he tried to move them to the position that we consider more just: the one affirming that each individual should be punished for his own sins, not the sins of others?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You're on the Air with John Stormer!

One of my favorite books is None Dare Call It Treason, written by John Stormer. None Dare Call It Treason is a 1964 right-wing classic that was about Communist infiltration of key institutions (e.g., education, the media, etc.) as well as America's weakness in the face of the Communist threat.

The book is well-documented and worth reading, but I think that one can form different conclusions from the ones that Stormer presents, at least in certain cases. For example, did President John F. Kennedy stop aiding anti-Castro Cubans because he was soft on Communism, or did he have other motivations? In an audio book that I listened to recently, An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek said that Kennedy stopped aiding the anti-Castro Cubans because they had failed to create a mass uprising against Castro's regime. Kennedy did not want it to appear that the U.S. was helping a few Cuban rebels overthrow Castro, since how could the U.S. criticize Soviet interventionism in other countries when it was practicing an interventionism of its own? Kennedy viewed the Bay of Pigs as a failure, so he pulled out. Kennedy may have acted as he did because he viewed foreign affairs as a delicate matter!

I think that's how it may have been with a lot of the "treason" that Stormer criticizes. Did FDR at Yalta give Eastern Europe to the Soviets because he was pro-Communist, or because the U.S. had just gotten out of a World War and he didn't want to fight another one against the Soviets? Stormer could rightfully argue, however, that we never had to actually fight the Soviets. All we had to do was cut off aid to their dying economy!

I think that Stormer does a good job in documenting the left-wing bias of the media and education. He even discusses an incident in which Time Magazine (I think) clearly drew its facts from The Daily Worker (a Communist publication), even going so far as to make the same factual errors! But is left-wing bias the same as a conscious Communist conspiracy to destroy America and subject it to the Soviets? If the Communists were as effective as the right-wing claims, why didn't they take over the United States?

Still, None Dare Call It Treason is one of my favorite books, for it contains drama, an alternative view of history to what was fed to me in schools, and good questions. So you can imagine my excitement when I turned on Dr. Stanley Monteith's Radio Liberty and heard that John Stormer was the guest!

I decided to call in, but I wondered what I should ask. Should I ask him if his book is still relevant, given that the Cold War is now over? I decided not to ask that, since he probably addresses that question on his web site (see here). And, sure enough, he does! In a documentary that he advertises, along with an interview on a New Zealand blog (not Steph's, but the one here), Stormer claims that Communism is still a threat in the world. Russia has Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB agent who is trying to resurrect the old Soviet empire, and he has formed alliances with Communist China, Vietnam, Ortega's Nicaragua, and Hugo Chavez. My impression is that, for Stormer, if Reagan defeated the Soviets, then it was a short-lived victory!

I decided to ask Stormer about Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, names that are deemed particularly relevant to today's economic crisis. In a post that I wrote in March, Hoover and FDR: Liberal or Conservative?, I referred to Stormer's documented claim that the economy was actually improving near the end of Hoover's Administration, but Roosevelt came in and prolonged the Great Depression. I decided to ask Mr. Stormer if he had any thoughts on current tendencies to portray Herbert Hoover as a big-spending liberal, and FDR as a budget-cutting conservative.

I was surprised at how easy it was to get on the show! When I called the Bible Answer Man several years ago, the screener wanted to know what my question was so he could determine if it was good enough to be asked on the air. (It was!). But the screener for Radio Liberty didn't inquire about my question, and he told me I'd be on right after the present caller.

And so I was on! I thanked Dr. Stan and said it was an honor to be able to talk with John Stormer, one of my favorite authors. Then, I asked my question.

I had a hard time listening through my phone, and I couldn't listen to the radio because it was a few minutes behind (so I got to hear my geeky voice once the conversation was over!). But what I got out of Stormer's response was that Herbert Hoover (unlike Calvin Coolidge) was a big government man, yet FDR took big government to new extremes. He noted that FDR ran in 1932 as a critic of Hoover's big government policies, but he went back on his word when he started the New Deal. Dr. Stan interjected by drawing parallels with Barack Obama, who didn't run as someone who would nationalize the automobile industry. Plus, Dr. Stan criticized FDR for taking America off of the gold standard, which protects America from inflation. It's interesting that the right-wing conspiracy theorists champion the gold standard nowadays, whereas Charles Coughlin was an avid opponent of it in the 1930's! And he opposed many of the same people--the Federal Reserve, one-worlders, etc.

Dr. Stan and John Stormer were very gracious, and Dr. Stan asked me if I had any more questions. You rarely hear that on radio programs, which try to get people through the show, one after the other! I then asked if Mr. Stormer and/or Dr. Stan had any thoughts on FDR's budget cutting in 1937, which many claim made the Depression worse. Stormer said that he was not aware of this, since, as far as he knew, the federal budget swelled under Franklin Roosevelt.

Stormer is probably right on this in a big-picture sense. In my link Hoover and FDR: Liberal or Conservative?, I refer to William P. Hoar, who documents that FDR actually increased government spending.

But there was a brief span of time, 1937-1938, when Roosevelt raised taxes and cut the federal budget. Unemployment climbed then, but it went on a downward trajectory once Roosevelt increased government spending (see here). Many conservatives point out, however, that the jobs people had were in the public sector, and they are not a reliable indicator of how many people are employed. The true sign of economic recovery is more people having private sector jobs, according to this line of reasoning!

In any case, I enjoyed my opportunity to interact with John Stormer! I just ordered his book on judicial activism for an inexpensive price.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War

I saw Charlie Wilson's War yesterday. I loved it! The movie focuses on three characters. There's Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a boozing, womanizing Democratic Congressman from Texas. There's Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a right-wing socialite who's concerned about the Russians taking over Afghanistan. And there's Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the outcast, flamboyant CIA agent. The three of them unite to assist the anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan.

Their concerns are both geo-political and humanitarian. They don't want Russia to possess Afghanistan because that could give the Soviets a foothold in the Middle East--near the oil that so many nations depend upon. And they visit a refugee camp in Pakistan, where they encounter children without arms. The Russians sent down explosive toys so that Afghan children could pick them up and get injured, causing the Afghans to focus on tending their own children rather than fighting. Yet, the freedom-loving Afghans keep on fighting!

Charlie Wilson manages to get the covert operations budget increased, and the Afghans then have the weapons to shoot down Russian planes. Charlie has to unite all sorts of people--Muslims and Israelis--to get the weapons into Afghan hands. The Muslim-Israeli relationship was stormy in those days (as it is now), as was that between some of the Islamic nations.

In the end, the anti-Communists drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and the Cold War comes to an end. But, to Charlie Wilson's protest, the United States walks away from Afghanistan and doesn't help her build her infrastructure for an inexpensive price. Most of us know how that turned out! The Taliban took over the vacuum and sheltered Al-Qaeda, which later attacked the United States.

Charlie Wilson's War has quite a few powerful scenes. There's one in which Charlie Wilson meets with the head of Pakistan, who wants Wilson to get the U.S. to help out the anti-Communist rebels. "Mr. Wilson, I did some research on you before you came here, and I know you have a lot of character flaws," the chief of state said, as Congressman Wilson nods his head. "But you have a reputation for doing what you promise. Promise me that you will visit the refugee camp." And Charlie does so, which changes his life! Charlie Wilson acknowledged that he was a flawed human being, but he was also a person of integrity.

In another scene, Charlie is trying to get the support of Congressman "Doc" Clarence Long (Ned Beatty) for the anti-Communist rebels. Doc is head of Foreign Operations on the House Appropriations Committee, and he is reluctant to help out a group of Muslims, whom he considers crazy. But he agrees to go with Charlie to the refugee camp, and he is moved by the Afghans' courage. He gives them a rousing speech. "My son was injured in Vietnam, so I know the evils of Communism," he says to thunderous applause. He encourages the Afghans to continue their courageous struggle against the Soviets. Congressman Long and the Afghan rebels were from two different cultures and religions, yet they could connect on a human level.

And, of course, I enjoyed the Afghans shooting down the Russian planes, to the tune of Handel's Messiah. I know I shouldn't get excited about war, but the Russians were bullies. They strutted their planes into Afghanistan to shoot at innocent civilians, and they were pretty smug about their superior fire-power. But they were surprised when the Afghans suddenly had high-class weapons of their own, courtesy of the U.S.A.!

We got to hear some familiar names in the course of the movie--John Murtha and Rudolph Giuliani, who was about to prosecute Charlie Wilson for cocaine use. And I saw a Desperate Housewives character: the guy who played Gabby's second husband, the mayor of Wysteria Lane. In this movie, he was a high-ranking official in the CIA.

The movie leads me to think about certain issues. First, there's human rights. The political right has always been concerned about human rights abuses under Communist regimes, and rightfully so. But what about the atrocities that Saddam Hussein committed while we were supporting him? Or the innocents killed by the El Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras? Was Joanne Herring concerned about them too, or did she tend to focus on Communist atrocities, since anti-Communism was an integral part of her ideology?

Second, there's Democrat vs. Republican. In the movie, Joanne Herring does an excellent job detailing the inept foreign policy of the Carter Administration. At the time, our response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the Olympics. Ooh! I bet the Russians were shaking in their boots then! But it was because of Charlie Wilson and (later) Ronald Reagan that our anti-Communist foreign policy got some teeth! At the same time, I can't really say "Republicans good, Democrats bad," since Charlie Wilson and Doc Long were Democrats. Plus, it was Dan Rather who drew national attention to the plight of the Afghans, even going so far as to spend time in the area.

Third, there's religion. Joanne Herring was a Christian woman, and a big part of her opposition to Communism was her belief in religious freedom. She herself felt that God had a purpose in bringing together such diverse people as Charlie Wilson, herself, and Gust--all for a good cause: to defeat tyranny. At the same time, she slept with Charlie Wilson! Shouldn't her evangelical beliefs have led her to oppose fornication? But there are plenty of people who tell me that sleeping around goes on in conservative churches. I guess I always hung around the ultra-conservative evangelicals, so that's why I'm astounded to hear that!

Finally, I watched the bonus features, which had interviews with the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring. They came across as nice, approachable people! Charlie Wilson appeared humble, kind, and laid back. He had a confidence and charisma to him, but (unlike Bill Clinton) he wasn't the type of person who took himself too seriously or tried to suck up all of the spotlight. And Joanne was a charming lady. I can imagine myself interacting with them at a party, and them actually being interested in what I had to say. But I'd be pretty intimidated around Tom Hank's version of Charlie Wilson, or Julia Roberts' depiction of Joanne Herring. Maybe it's their glamour, or a feeling that I'd be out of my league by talking with them. I'm not sure.

In any case, Charlie Wilson's War is a must-see! I'll probably see it again in the near future.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Maude Meets Florida

This is an article in Entertainment Weekly reflecting on Bea Arthur's acting career:

Beatrice Arthur: An appreciation

What's hilarious is its video of Maude first meeting Florida. Maude was Bea Arthur's character, and she was an upper middle-class white liberal with white liberal guilt. And Florida was her African-American maid, who eventually went on to her own successful Norman Lear sitcom, Good Times.

The video is Maude at her bleeding heart liberal best! I said yesterday that Lear portrayed her acts of concern as "inauthentic." Actually, I think Maude cares, but her white liberal mindset leads her to have a distorted view of those she wants to help. She doesn't really relate to them as people, but as objects of charity, or as people whose lives are totally horrible.

I'm not sure if I can describe what I'm getting at. It reminds me of a scene in Roots: The Next Generation, in which Alex Haley goes to a party of rich white liberals. One of them talks with him about the barbarity of the white South. Many of them ask him for his opinion about Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Haley wishes someone would ask him about an issue unrelated to race! He feels like a token, or as somebody's charity case.

In this video, Maude sincerely tries to understand and appreciate the African-American experience, but she misses the boat! Similarly, I've wondered how African-Americans respond to my posts on Black History Month. Am I being like Maude? Just something I wonder!

Enjoy!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bea Arthur

I just learned that Bea Arthur has passed away. Bea starred on the popular sitcoms Maude and the Golden Girls.

You know, this is somewhat of a shock to me, and the reason is that I watch the Golden Girls every now and again on the Hallmark Channel. For many of us, cable tends to immortalize people, when actually time and life continue to go on, as people grow old and die.

As Maude, Bea played the liberal cousin to Edith Bunker, and she often got into fights with Edith's arch-conservative husband, Archie. When Arch was going to a hotel room and Edith was asking how he'd find entertainment, Maude said, "Oh, don't worry, Governor Wallace will be on the Tonight Show. Archie will love it!"

As a conservative (loosely speaking), my reaction to Maude was pretty much love-hate. I liked the show because it made fun of bleeding-heart liberals, implying that there was a degree of inauthenticity in their acts of "concern." On one episode, for example, Maude was hiring a Puerto Rican to be her maid solely because the lady was Puerto Rican. Maude was expressing her white liberal guilt!

At the same time, there was a two-parter in which Maude is pregnant and struggles with whether or not to abort the child. That episode made no attempt whatsoever to give us the pro-life side of the debate. As far as it was concerned, the only consideration was that women have rights, and that's it! The life of the unborn child was not even considered. The creator of the series, Norman Lear, could be a thoughtful liberal who critiqued his own side, but he was a liberal nonetheless.

But there was one episode in which we got to see some sparks: Maude's shoot-out with conservative movie star John Wayne! She got to duke it out with the Duke, right before she danced with him.

Something about Maude that spilled into Dorothy Sbornak on the Golden Girls was that she was real. She dealt with emotions that many of us experience: bitterness, disappointment, love, loyalty to friends, insecurity, moral dilemmas, struggles with dating, etc., etc. I can think of many scenes that illustrate these emotions, but there's one that I want to share. On one episode, the Golden Girls were going to shake hands with the first President Bush when he came to their door, and Dorothy was planning to hit him with all sorts of challenging questions about education. When Bush finally came to their door, she choked up and didn't say anything. Even when he asked her about her thoughts on education, she was too nervous to speak! I can picture myself doing that!

Both Maude and Dorothy came across as opinionated know-it-alls who had a sharp wit. I think of the episode of the Golden Girls in which Dorothy was about to appear on Jeopardy. In the practice session, Dorothy was really mopping the floor with a professor (I think) and a highly educated physicist, even though she was a lowly substitute English teacher. But she was rejected from appearing on the Jeopardy show because the person in charge didn't think anyone would root for her!

But weaknesses often overlap with strengths, and both Maude and Dorothy could be described as principled, morally-conscious, and courageous. On an episode I saw recently, Dorothy tried to flunk a popular high school football player, to the consternation of most of the town! At the end, when he was in the hospital on account of a football injury, she came to visit him and read him The Tale of Two Cities. Now that's a great teacher!

I can't believe that Bea Arthur is gone, but her work lives on.

Kip McKean's Samuel Series

I've been listening to Kip McKean's series on I-II Samuel as part of my weekly quiet time (see here). Kip McKean was once head of the International Churches of Christ, which many consider a cult (see www.reveal.org). Although Kip is no longer a part of that organization, he seems to hold many of the same views. Felix once told me about the International Churches of Christ, "If they approach you, run the other way!"

Perhaps my biggest problem with Kip's sermons is that they have all that I hate about evangelicalism, while lacking the things that I like. Here are some things that I glean from his sermons (they're not exact quotes, but they're what I remember): "If you're lonely and reluctant to reach out to others, then you're not sold out for God!" "If you have excuses not to attend this Bible study, then you're not sold out for God!" "Hannah sang before the Lord. If you're not singing, then something is wrong!" "If you're hurt, then your problem is that you don't forgive!"

Kip says that we should be "sold out" for God, but I have yet to hear him explain why I should be drawn to his conception of God in the first place. Why? Because he can toss me into hell fire? Occasionally, I hear Kip talk about God's unconditional love, but that's usually when he's emphasizing that God has set conditions for us to receive God's grace (e.g., repentance, baptism, becoming a fisher of men, etc.). That reminds me of Armstrongism: its preachers only discussed grace when arguing that Christians should keep the law! At least evangelicalism has a God of love.

Why would I be sold out for a taskmaster, someone who assumes that I should think, feel, and act perfectly in order to have any spiritual security? Healing is a process. I wish that I could wave a magic wand and get rid of all of my social insecurity, unforgiveness, unhappiness, etc., but I don't have that. So I trust that God is patient with me as I heal.

I don't understand how anyone could endure the International Church of Christ's version of God, but there are people who do. I once sat beside a woman on a plane who was in the Boston Church of Christ, and she told me that she'd been a member for 27 years. Fortunately for me, she realized that I was a lost cause, probably because I was dropping the word "cult" in every other sentence. But I sincerely wonder: Wouldn't she run out of spiritual gas eventually, since none of us can be perfect all of the time? No wonder there are a lot of people who leave that church!

One thing I like about Kip, though, is that he's honest about his own imperfections. That somewhat took me aback the first time I heard him, since I expected him to think he was perfect. After all, if a religion demands perfection of its members for them to have spiritual security, then people would naturally try to convince themselves that they are spiritually up-to-snuff, right? But Kip is open about his marital squabbles, such as the times his wife stresses out about the finances, or when she told Kip that he was possessed by the devil. And Kip acknowledged that there have been times when he hasn't been in the mood to sing. If I'm not mistaken, he also said that his son was following the world before he finally decided to come back to the church. That shows me that Kip is patient and realistic as a parent. Real life tends to shatter our perfectionist demands!

The audience usually cheers Kip on while he preaches, but I wonder how much of that flows from sincerity, and how much of it is them acting as they think good, spiritual people should act. When the International Church of Christ was trying to make inroads at my undergraduate institution (DePauw), the leader of my evangelical Bible study group said, "You know, in the International Church of Christ, if you're not enthusiastic during the service, you're called out on that!" That's what I don't like about this church (from what I've heard about it): it tries to legislate what should be spontaneous and genuine.

That's not to say that Kip's sermons have nothing to teach me, though. Kip said that, when he was counselling a person with a lust problem, he told him to go home and look up a bunch of Bible passages about the "fear of the Lord." Personally, I have problems serving God out of fear, but maybe I'd behave better if fear were a part of my religion. But then what would that do to other aspects of God that draw me: his love, his patience with me, etc.?

Those are just my impressions so far. I hope International Church of Christ people don't visit my blog and try to convert me! I'll stick Felix, Russell, Aggie, and Byker Bob on them if they try!

Friday, April 24, 2009

What's the Point?

Russell Miller of Holy Mighty Atheist asks an excellent question in his post, What’s the point? He asks why people should be Christians, when Christians have the same moral flaws as non-believers.

Here are some considerations:

1. There are good Christians in the world. Sure, there are a lot of bad ones, and, like Russell, I often find myself criticizing Christianity and Christendom on the basis of its bad apples. But there are also some good ones. And we don't have to shoot as high as Mother Theresa to find them. For example, there are Christians who are reaching out to Russell on his blog--hoping for him to heal, seeking common ground, listening to his story, sharing their own experiences and vulnerabilities, etc. Are they perfect? No. But they do seem to care, at least from what I can see. And there are Christians and believers in God who have reached out to me over the years.

I think of the story of Austin Miles. Austin was a circus-master who converted to evangelical Christianity, and he quickly became a celebrity on Jim Bakker's PTL. Austin witnessed a lot of hypocrisy within evangelical Christianity--especially among big-time evangelical celebrities (and celebrity wannabes). Even the person who led him to Christ had huge hang-ups, although he initially appeared to have his act together (which was just that--an act). And he told Austin what a lot of Christians have told Russell: "Hey, I'm not perfect, just forgiven!"

You can read Austin's story in his book, Don't Call Me Brother: A Ringmaster's Escape from the Pentecostal Church. In one of his writings, Austin says that the next time someone tells him he or she's a born-again Christian, he'll respond, "Thanks for the warning."

But Austin's story did not end with his book. He met a pastor, who patiently listened to Austin's story and showed him love. When the pastor passed away, Austin realized that the bad Christians who turned him off from the faith were not the only Christians in the world, for there are good ones as well.

Here's a less-juicy version of Austin's conversion from Christianity: Walk Away How I walked away By Austin Miles.

And here's the story of his conversion back to Christianity: Burned Out--A Refining Fire.

2. The bad Christians in the world could be considerably worse without their faith in Christ. At least their Christian faith gives them some moral compass!

C.S. Lewis talks about this in Mere Christianity, in the chapter "Nicer People or New Men?" Lewis contrasts two people: a nice man who's a non-believer, and a mean lady who's a Christian. According to Lewis, the mean lady may be a Christian because she feels that this is her only hope for goodness. As Lewis says, "It's either Christ or nothing for her."

That's the same sort of sentiment I find in Luc's testimony (see I'm not a Christian because (An open letter to Russell) and I pushed the Jesus button, nothing happened). Essentially, Luc is a Christian because he feels that he needs a power greater than himself to bring him to sanity (my incorporation of the second step of Alcoholics Anonymous into the discussion).

I can't say that my prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance make me a great guy. I'm still a fearful, hateful, lustful worm of a person who has some redeeming qualities. But I do believe that I'd be worse off if I did not do those things--if I didn't set aside time each day to reflect on something positive, to vent about my problems, to seek wisdom, etc., etc. I find those things in religion. This is just my experience, though, and there may be other ways to accomplish the same goals.

3. I used to get the Worldwide Church of God's publication for teens, Youth [whatever the year]. When I was a subscriber, the Worldwide hadn't quite gotten to scrapping the Sabbath and the holy days, yet it was moving towards a conception of God that was more benevolent than its previous portrayals. In one article, a person asked why we should be Christians. And the author's answer was simple: "Because everybody needs a friend."

That's the biggest reason that I'm a Christian--or (at least) someone who believes in a higher power. I like having someone to talk to each day. I prefer to believe that there's a purpose to my life rather than total aimlessness. Sure, I want God to give me stuff, but I like something Philip Yancey said in his book, Prayer: Does It Make a Difference?: I pray for the company.

But I can only speak from my experience. I too have my disappointments with God, but I still make time each day for prayer. Where else would I go?

I will say this, though: There are many people with bitterness against God who eventually get out of their bitterness. I know a man who doesn't have a left arm, and he says that he used to be mad at God. "Why should I believe in God? What's he ever done for me?," he once asked. But he gradually concluded that faith could lead him to the answers he was seeking. That's actually an encouragement to me, since I still have bitterness--against religion, against Christians, against God, against life, etc.! But I hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyway, that's my two cents! Have a good day!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spiritual Maturity

Today, I want to interact with ideas in two of James McGrath's posts. The first one is from July, and the second one is more recent:

Thank God For Blessing Us With A Fallible Bible
Review of Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus From The Church

In the first post, Dr. McGrath essentially calls fundamentalists "kindergartners." He gets criticism for that, and he even criticizes himself. But his definition of spiritual maturity is in the following quote:

But what if God has providentially placed in the Bible clues that are meant to lead you to eventually realize that what God wants from you is precisely what the loud voices of fundamentalism condemn: taking responsibility for your own actions, for your moral judgments, and learning to live with uncertainty, yet not without faith?

By "clues," Dr. McGrath means "the fact that the Bible contains what appear to be differences of viewpoint, discrepancies, and in some cases apparently irreconcilable contradictions."

My problem with this statement is that I don't define spiritual maturity in that way. Everyone, from the strictest fundamentalist to the most adamant non-believer, has to take responsibility for his or her own actions. All of us live in the real world, where our actions have consequences. We all have to sleep in the bed that we made, in some way, shape, or form. That's just life. So I can't say that fundamentalists don't take responsibility for their decisions, or that liberals do and are thus more mature. Everyone makes decisions and lives with their consequences.

Some choose to get their guidance from the Bible as they go through life, and they are not less mature than those who make up their morality as they go along. Most of us receive guidance from someone--counselors, family, friends, etc.--for we do not have all of the answers. Even Dr. McGrath says that there resources for those who want to follow the path of being honest about their religious doubts and questions.

Those who receive their moral guidance from a Bible they consider inerrant are not that bad off, in my opinion. They're getting instruction about keeping their passions in check, and many of us know that passions can lead us where we don't want to be! They are also hopefully learning how to be kinder, more loving, and generous.

I also don't think that "uncertainty" is a sign of spiritual maturity. If one person wants to acknowledge that there are contradictions in the Bible, and another seeks to harmonize them through any means he can find, the former is not necessarily better than the latter. I have met liberal Christians who lacked any ounce of humility. And I have encountered conservative Christians who are the warmest, most loving people I've met. I've experienced the reverse as well.

That's why I like this quote from Dr. McGrath's second post, which reviews Robin Meyers' Saving Jesus from the Church: Meyers points out that neither claiming to believe the virgin birth as a sign of one's faith, nor claiming not to believe it as a demonstration of one's critical thinking, necessarily leads to "a changed heart or a self-sacrificing spirit" (p.37). In his own way, Meyers highlights the true sign of spiritual maturity: the fruit of the Spirit (e.g., love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, generosity, etc.).

UPDATE: The following comment McGrath made under his post, Inerrancy, Historicity, Maximalism and Minimalism, qualifies for me the picture that I paint above. McGrath does believe that God had something to do with the Bible and that it can offer people guidance. I may wrestle with his comment in a future post, but I just want to post it here so I can find it:

As for what I believe about the Bible, I believe that its authors in places set forth a vision of the good that is so high that even the Biblical authors themselves did not always live up to it. And I believe that, just because its authors were fallible human beings, that doesn't mean that many of them did not have a life-transforming experience of that transcendent reality we (and they) refer to as God. Fallible human beings often have important things to say, and we should not demand perfection before we listen. But as Eric Reitan has emphasized in comments on another blog entry, when we come to believe that a text is inerrant, we use that as justification to stop listening to others that may have wise but fallible things to say, that we need to hear. And so I believe that the case for the Bible's errancy, far from being opposed to a Christian reading thereof, can play an essential role in our coming to hear it for what it is: part of the ongoing dialogue that is Christianity, rather than the end of dialogue...

[W]hether that view is "high" enough is a subject on which many will differ. But one thing I've felt more and more strongly recently (and is one of the reasons I've been posting on the subjects I have) is this: it seems to me that a lot of us (myself included) prefer to debate the precise nature of the Bible's inspiration/(in)fallibility/(in)errancy because discussing theology, history, and other subjects that are genuinely difficult, is still ultimately far less challenging than the challenge to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others. And so lately my sense of inadequacy as a Christian has nothing to do with my doctrinal precision, but my failure to sell all my CDs and use the money to feed some family that is starving.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Ramblings

For some reason, the environment has been on my mind this week. I don’t think it’s because today is Earth Day, since that fact didn’t occur to me until last night. But it’s pretty ironic.

On Sunday morning, I watched This Week with George Stephanopoulos, and George was interviewing our fearless Republican leader in the U.S. House, John Boehner. George asked Boehner whether or not there was a Republican plan to address climate change, and Boehner responded (1.) that cows send carbon into the atmosphere, so it’s not dangerous, (2.) that we don’t really know if humans are the cause of global warming, (3.) that we need to get other nations onboard to address the problem, and (4.) that Obama’s plan taxes companies and ships jobs overseas.

For (1.), environmentalists can respond that we don’t want too much carbon in the atmosphere, which is what happens when we add automobiles and smokestacks to cows and our breathing. What’s interesting, though, is that people laughed at Ronald Reagan in 1980 for suggesting that trees and Mount St. Helens cause a lot of pollution, and now the federal government does studies on the natural causes of global warming. Bobby Jindal made fun of them in his response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union!

(2.) and (3.) contradict each other, since, if we’re not the cause of global warming, then we can’t do anything to stop it. Sarah Palin made the same blunder when she said, “It’s not important what causes climate change, but that we do something about it” (not an exact quote, but that was the drift).

I don’t entirely understand (4.), since I’m not sure where the tax comes in. Under Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, companies that emit more carbon will have to buy credits from those who don’t emit as much. The ones buying the credits will then pass on the cost of purchasing them to their consumers, or they will cut other company costs. That will mean higher energy prices and/or a loss of jobs. But that’s not exactly a tax, since the government isn’t getting any money out of the deal (as far as I know).

On Sunday night, I ate dinner with a relative of mine whose job is evaluating smokestacks. He said that companies are afraid of Obama’s proposals to combat climate change.

On Tuesday morning, I was reading the April 4 Newsweek while I was waiting to see my therapist. First, I read an article by Newt Gingrich. He explained how Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal will lead to higher energy prices, but his thesis was more-or-less “drill, baby, drill, and develop renewable energy while you’re at it.” Newt is a Republican who has some level of environmental consciousness, so I wonder if he thinks global warming is caused by humans. If so, then isn’t “drill, baby, drill” harmful to the environment? Maybe he sees drilling as a temporary solution for our energy needs while we seek ways to produce renewable energy.

Next, I read an article that said global warming isn’t even a problem. Colder climates are getting warmer, already warm climates aren’t getting that much hotter, and the threat of global cooling is being warded off. Plus, if our carbon emissions ever become problematic, then we can plant more trees to suck them up! So said an article in liberal Newsweek!

George Will has also asked why we should fear climate change, since who’s to say that one climate is better than another? And I’ve read about plants and shrubs underneath sheets of ice in Antarctica (I think), indicating that it wasn’t always cold there.

But there are possible downsides to global warming. There are scientists who suggest that global warming was the cause of many of our recent hurricanes, since heat causes water to move faster. Fortunately, we’ve not had as many hurricanes lately, but they were coming one after another for a while! And not having a long, cold winter prevents certain diseases from getting killed off. Sure, we have cold days during the winter time, and conservatives like to say when those happen, “Man, Al Gore talks about global warming, but it’s FREEZING right now!” But here in Cincinnati during the winter, it’s the North Pole one day, and a tropical island the next.

Afterwards, I read an article about Carol Browner, President Obama’s energy czar. She was Bill Clinton’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and she tried to be really tough on businesses at the time. Now, she is much more pragmatic and open to compromise. From what the Newsweek article was telling me, she’s not a hypocrite, for she lives a pretty green lifestyle and walks to work whenever she can. So she’s not like Al Gore, who lectures us about climate change right before taking off in his private jet!

The article said that a lot of companies don’t find environmental regulations to be all that expensive. That may be how some of them see the situation, but, as I said above, my relative told me that many companies are afraid of Obama’s proposals to combat global warming!

Finally, I read an article by Thomas Friedman, a guru of the liberal left. At Jewish Theological Seminary, students quoted “Thomas Friedman” with solemn reverence in their voice! He said that the search for renewable energy flopped in the 1970’s because we had an oil glut at the beginning of Reagan’s first term, and one of Reagan’s first acts as President was to remove the solar panels from the White House. I often cited the U.S. government’s failure on renewable energy as an example of the inefficiency of government. But government was probably inefficient in that case because it had no will. At least that’s an alternative explanation.

Friedman also said that Americans are not that eager to address climate change, which he attributed to two factors: (1.) Al Gore is the symbol of the environmental movement, and (2.) people are more responsive to combatting global warming when the poll question is asked a certain way. I think it was when I was reading this that my therapist was ready to see me.

I hope you got something out of today’s meanderings! Have a good Earth Day, or just “day,” if you’re not an environmentalist.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Messiah in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

Yesterday, I finished my daily quiet time on the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Testaments have a history that may extend from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. Scholars debate whether it is a Jewish document with Christian interpolations, or a Christian composition that uses Jewish traditions. How they can tell the difference between the two, I have no idea.

I did not feel that I did justice to the Messianic expectations in the Testaments, and so I'm writing this post to compensate for that. There are obviously Christian elements, such as their statements that God will become a man and be rejected by Israel. There are also elements that may be either Jewish or Christian, such as the idea that Israel can repent in her exile and bring about her restoration under the Messiah. The Testaments' notion that God will reach out to the Gentiles may also be Jewish or Christian, for parts of the Hebrew Bible had such an expectation, and Christianity tended to emphasize it (to say the least).

If the Testaments are Christian, then they are not Christian in a supersessionist sense, for (as far as I can see) they do not maintain that the church will replace Israel. Rather, in the Testaments, God is faithful to Israel, and he will raise up her tribes in the last days. The messianic expectations of the Testaments correspond with Romans 11, which affirms that God will one day restore "Israel after the flesh."

What's puzzling are the Testaments' statements that Levi and Judah will bring about the salvation of Israel, indicating that (for them) the Messiah will come from both tribes. In the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Marinus de Jonge says this obviously refers to Jesus, but Jesus did not come from the tribe of Levi. Hebrews 7 emphasizes that fact!

Could this reflect another form of Messianic expectation within Judaism? Qumran expected a priestly Messiah and a royal Messiah--two separate individuals. But maybe there were Jews who thought the Messiah would be descended from both Judah and Levi.

Or perhaps Testament of Levi 3:23-27 contains the answer to my confusion. It says that the seed of Levi will be divided three ways, and the third part will technically be from the tribe of Judah. Maybe the Testaments think Jesus is a Levite the same way that Paul views Gentile Christians as Abraham's seed (Romans 4; Galatians 3), even though, physically-speaking, they are not. Christianity has a concept of spiritual descent.

At the same time, I can imagine Testament of Levi 3:23-27 as a Christian interpolation to a Jewish document. In this scenario, the Testaments say that the Messiah will descend from Levi and Judah, and the Christian interpolators take great pains to apply that to Jesus. I'm not sure if any scholar sees it that way, though.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Columbine

Today is the anniversary of Columbine, the shooting that occurred at a Colorado high school ten years ago.

I first heard of the incident at a Bible study. People were saying that we should pray for people in Colorado, and I (not keeping up with the news back then) ignorantly asked, "What's going on in Colorado?"

The story that we were fed at the time was that there were people who did not fit in at their high school who expressed their frustrations through an act of violence. Over the past ten years, however, some have suggested that the shooters were more socially-integrated than was initially thought.

But I appreciated the growing realization that there are people on the social margins, as well as the sudden attention to the problem of bullying. I remember a preacher at a Christian gathering saying: "One thing you can say about these kids, and that is that they were in a lot of pain. And the group that they felt the most rejected by was the Christians, since they shot anyone who said they believed in God." His thesis was that we can go to God with our pain and he will minister to us, and maybe even bring to our side someone else who's experiencing the same problem that we are.

That message encouraged me, and I think that going to God with my pain has made me feel better, at least for a little while. But God didn't always bring into my path people whom I could help, since many are individualistic and secretive about their problems, meaning that they don't share much with me. Plus, I have social difficulties that hinder my interaction. Since I've attended Alcoholics Anonymous and started my blog, however, I've been able to help more people.

A heroine in the Columbine tragedy was the young lady who took a bold stand for God. The shooters went into a library and asked anyone who believed in God to stand up. The young lady was there tutoring students, and she stood up. "I believe in God, and you should walk in his path," she told the shooters. She lost her life as a result.

I once thought that she was a preppy Christian beauty queen who fit in and was liked by everyone, whereas the shooters were hurt outsiders with genuine grievances. But that impression was challenged when I read an article in Christianity Today. The magazine was interviewing her parents, and they said that their daughter was somewhat of a recluse and had problems dating. But she channeled her energy into her religion and service work.

I think the lessons of Columbine include the need to be sensitive to the pain of others and to value all people, even those who appear strange.

Will God Stay?

I've been thinking a lot about prayer, specifically the issue of why I enjoy it more now than I did several years ago.

I don't want to go through my entire prayer history here, since I already did so in my post, Me and Prayer. Suffice it to say that my prayer life has taken a variety of forms: dry and satisfying, feeling God and not feeling God, using the Bible and not using the Bible, transformative and ineffective.

I'm trying to identify what made a good prayer time good. At first, I thought it was reading the Bible and commenting on what I read. Before I did that on a regular basis, my quiet times were dead and aimless. But then I remembered: there were times when I had dead, uninspiring quiet times while I was reading Scripture, so I'm not sure if the Bible reading component is what makes a quiet time good, at least not all of the time.

But the deal is this: Right now, I'm not reading the Bible for my daily quiet time. After I finished the Protestant canon, I went on to the deuterocanonical writings, then early Christian writings (e.g., Ignatius, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas), then the Koran, and now the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which I will finish today. My next stop will be the Mishnah. I still read the Bible, however, only not in my daily quiet time. I do a daily Bible reading, and my weekly quiet time goes through a book of the Bible.

In my daily quiet times, there are times when I talk about the text I am reading, but there are many times when I do not. Still, my quiet times are pretty good. I can usually think of something to say, and, when I can't, I just remain silent in case God wants to tell me something (not that I'm sure he actually does that). I enjoy talking to God about life, movies, shows, personal frustrations, etc. And an hour of prayer usually makes me feel better when I'm in a bad mood.

But I fear that my prayer times will return to the way they were before I used the Bible: dry, seeking inspiration but never quite getting it, hungry, unsatisfying, aimless. What will guarantee that my prayer times will not go in that direction? God? God didn't seem to be present during my bad quiet times!

Why are my quiet times good now even when I don't use the Bible, whereas they weren't as good back then? I'd like to identify the secret ingredient so I can use it and never have a bad quiet time.

Maybe one factor is that I'm a deeper thinker now than I was then. I've been reading the Bible and feeding my soul for years, so I have things now upon which I can draw. That wasn't as true back then.

"God" or some form of inspiration seems to permeate my quiet times right now. How can I be sure that this won't go away?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Love for Enemies

Russell Miller talks about an interesting exchange on his blog, "Holy Mighty Atheist." Russell is discussing an exchange on the blog, As Bereans Did, in which Christian Bill Hohmann tells someone he's debating, "May God forgive you for being so quick to judge and condemn." Russell sees Bill's statement as a far cry from Jesus' command to love one's enemies.

Russell raises interesting points--such as the one that many Christians use "passive-aggressive" techniques because they don't feel that they can honestly express their anger. Here, however, I want to focus on love of enemies, since that's a topic that's come up in my weekly quiet time on I Samuel.

David and Abigail are often cited as examples of people who loved their enemies. David spared Saul's life on two occasions, even though Saul was hunting him down to kill him (I Samuel 24, 26). And Abigail prevented David from slaughtering her abusive husband Nabal and his men (I Samuel 25). I once read an evangelical book for women that claimed Abigail must have had a solid relationship with the Lord, since she loved Nabal after putting up with his put-downs all those years.

But did David and Abigail love their enemies? David tells Saul in I Samuel 24:12: "May the LORD judge between me and you! May the LORD avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you" (NRSV). In I Samuel 26:10-11, David says to the blood-thirsty Abishai, who is begging for David's permission to kill Saul in his sleep: "As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him down; or his day will come to die; or he will go down into battle and perish. The LORD forbid that I should raise my hand against the LORD's anointed; but now take the spear that is at his head, and the water jar, and let us go."

David was perfectly willing (if not eager) for God to kill Saul, but he didn't want to do so himself. In these passages, he wasn't overly concerned about Saul's well-being. He just wanted to avoid guilt for himself.

What about Abigail? When she urges David to desist from his massacre of Nabal and his men, she says: "Now then, my lord, as the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal" (I Samuel 25:26). Something tells me that "like Nabal" is not exactly positive! Abigail wants Nabal to be punished for his rudeness, and her concern is more for the innocent people whom David was about to slaughter (the LXX for v 26 mentions innocent blood).

David and Abigail have an attitude of "I myself won't get back at you, but I sure hope God hurts you for what you did!" Is this love for enemies--valuing them as people and having concern for their well-being? Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and do good to them (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28).

At the same time, the New Testament also displays the same attitude as David and Abigail. In Romans 12:17-21, Paul exhorts Christians not to avenge themselves but rather to return good for evil. For Paul, Christians are to leave vengeance to God, who promises to repay.

Anger is natural to human beings, and many of us would like to think that there is some justice in the world: that someone actually cares about our suffering at the hands of other people. Even taking ourselves out of the picture, who wants the wicked to get off scot-free? At the same time, those who hurt us or do bad things are human beings, just like we are, and they probably crave love like anyone does.

Doubting Thomas Sunday

Today is "Doubting Thomas" Sunday within the Roman Catholic Church. My church bulletin had the following insightful statement about John 20. The background is that Thomas had just missed out on seeing the risen Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit.

How often we feel, like Thomas, that we have "missed out" on something that helps others to be more secure in their faith; that if we only had the right proof we would come to be full, complete, and total belief. This is seldom the way in which growth in faith works. Most often, for us as it was for Thomas, it is only by doggedly staying on the journey with Jesus Christ that we will come to greater faith in him. Too many of us believe that our growth in knowledge about our faith or in spiritual depth and awareness stops at a certain age, usually marked by graduation from an educational institution. But a spirit-filled relationship with Christ happens only through persistent pursuit of opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding of the faith, opportunities to grow in prayer and to be shaped by praying with others, opportunities to bring others to believe through our witness...Let us look to Thomas, then, as our role model, perhaps even our patron, as we continue to grow in our faith in, and relationship with, the risen Christ.

(This bulletin is published by J.S. Paluch Company, Inc.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Was It Really Samuel?

In I Samuel 28, King Saul visits the witch of Endor and asks her to call up Samuel from the dead. "Samuel" then tells Saul that he and his sons will soon die, for God has rejected him from being king.

Was that really Samuel? My Armstrongite background answers "no." For Armstrongites, the dead are unconscious, for Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that the dead do not know anything, and Psalm 6:5 states that the dead in Sheol do not give thanks to God. This doctrine is known as "soul sleep." Armstrongites maintain that what Saul saw couldn't have been Samuel, but a demon.

The identity of "Samuel" in I Samuel 28 has been debated throughout the history of biblical interpretation. From what I can see, Jewish interpretations seemed to maintain that Samuel was the one who appeared to Saul. Jesus ben Sira (second century B.C.E.) says in Sirach 46:20 that Samuel prophesied even after his death, and Josephus (first century C.E.) affirms in Antiquities 6:332ff. that the soul of Samuel came up from Hades. The rabbis also think it was Samuel (see here).

Within Christianity, however, there was much more disagreement. I was reading the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture last night, and I saw that Justin Martyr believed it was Samuel, whereas Tertullian thought it was a demon. Origen tries to refute those who claim it's a demon. From Keil-Delitzsch's commentary, I learned that Martin Luther and John Calvin voted "demon."

Soul sleep isn't always the reason that Christians vote "demon." Eighteenth century Calvinist commentator John Gill and others say that Samuel couldn't come from the ground, since his soul was in heaven with God. So you can tell that soul sleep is not a factor in their conclusion!

Perhaps the biggest issue in the "demon" explanation is this: the Torah condemns seeking familiar spirits (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:9–14), so certain Christians don't think that God would have honored necromancy by allowing a witch to bring up Samuel from the dead.

But what about the message of "Samuel"? He spoke God's word, didn't he? He said that Saul and his sons would die, and that God was rejecting him from being king. Would a demon speak the truth?

Those who claim that this was a demon have various answers for that. Some say that a demon can speak the truth, or that God can use a demon to accomplish God's will (I Kings 22:23). Others contend, however, that the demon was not conveying God's message. According to Matthew Henry and Ellen White, God would have encouraged Saul to repent rather than discouraging him and kicking him when he was down, as "Samuel" does in I Samuel 28. As many Christians today assert, the Holy Spirit convicts, whereas Satan condemns, and that's one way you can tell the difference between the two.

What's my position? I think it was Samuel for the reasons that the Nelson Study Bible enumerates: "It seems best to follow the early view that this was a genuine appearance of Samuel which God Himself brought about. Several points favor this interpretation: (1) The medium was surprised (v. 12); (2) Saul identified the figure as Samuel (v. 14); (3) the message Samuel spoke was clearly from God (vv. 16–19); (4) the text says that the figure was Samuel (vv. 12, 15, 16)." In my opinion, God was at work here, so Samuel did not arrive through the machinations of the necromancer. That's why she was so surprised!

One more point: I don't really see a conflict between I Samuel 28 and biblical passages asserting that the dead don't know anything. I Samuel 28:15 says that Saul "disturbed" Samuel. P. Kyle McCarter states: "The verb rendered disturbed here refers specifically to the interruption of the rest of the dead (cf. 'Sheol beneath is stirred up' in Isa 14:9); it occurs in ancient tomb inscriptions as a description of the activity of graverobbers." Ordinarily, the dead are resting, but someone or something can arouse them out of their sleep. We may see something like that in Isaiah 14, in which the kings in Sheol are aroused and taunt the king of Babylon. Maybe the Old Testament view on the afterlife is that the dead usually were ignorant and unconscious because they were resting, but they could become conscious when someone woke them up!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Joseph's Slander

Years ago at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Pastor Tim Keller was preaching through the story of Joseph. His thesis was that none of its characters is morally good, yet God loves them and fulfills his righteous purposes through them anyway.

Keller said Joseph himself was a spoiled brat. He didn't use that term, but his interpretation of Genesis 37:2 gave that impression. Genesis 37:2 states that Joseph gave his father an evil report about his brothers, more specifically the sons of Jacob's maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. At first, I thought that meant that Joseph was telling his father something bad that his brothers had actually done. Keller maintained, however, that Joseph was slandering them.

Keller may be right, for the Hebrew word for "report" in Genesis 37:2, dibbah, often means "slander" in the Hebrew Bible (see here). But such a view about Joseph's act also occurs in the history of interpretation. I'm not going to research every treatment of this story, at least not in this post, but here are two:

1. The Testament of Gad is part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, whose history probably extends from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. In Testament of Gad 1, Gad states that he delivered a lamb from the mouth of a bear, and he killed the lamb because it was mangled and in pain. Joseph then told his father that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were slaughtering and eating the best of the flock. As a result, Gad hated Joseph. The book is about why hatred is wrong.

2. Genesis Rabbah 84:7 doesn't really say that Joseph was lying about his brothers, but rather that he was telling his father any evil about them that he could find. Rashi summarizes this rabbinic tradition as follows:

"evil tales about them: Any evil he saw in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he would tell his father: 1) that they ate limbs from living animals, 2) that they demeaned the sons of the handmaids by calling them slaves, and 3) that they were suspected of illicit sexual relationships. For these three [tales] he was punished: For [the report that his brothers ate] limbs from living animals, 'they slaughtered a kid' (Gen. 37:31) when they sold him, and did not eat it alive. For the report that he told about them that they called their brothers slaves, 'Joseph was sold as a slave' (Ps. 105:17), and concerning the illicit sexual relationships that he told about them, 'his master’s wife lifted her eyes, etc.' (Gen. 39:7)." (Source: http://www.chabad.org/.)

According to this passage, God disapproved of Joseph slandering his brothers, so he punished Joseph in a manner that resembled the slander.

James Kugel states in The Bible As It Was that ancient interpreters tried to make certain biblical characters look good. That may be the case with the patriarchs, but we don't really see it with Joseph, at least not in these two sources.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bithiah

During the Days of Unleavened Bread this year, I had my traditional Moses marathon, in which I watch five Moses movies: Cecil B. Demille's Ten Commandments (1956); Moses, with Burt Lancaster (1974); Moses, with Ben Kingsley (1996); Prince of Egypt (1998); and Ten Commandments, with Dougray Scott (2006). See My Moses Marathon and Moses Marathon Awards for last year's reflections.

Today, I want to focus on the character of Bithiah. In Exodus 2, the daughter of Pharaoh finds a Hebrew baby in a basket while she is at the river to bathe. She rescues him from her father's decree to kill every Hebrew baby boy, and she names him "Moshe," which means "drawing out" in Hebrew. She even says that she's naming him "Moshe" because "I drew him" (Hebrew, meshitihu) out of the water! (This raises interesting questions for inerrantists: Why is an Egyptian speaking in Hebrew? Is this historical, or is it a literary device?) She then adopts him and raises him as an Egyptian.

Rabbis identified Pharaoh's daughter with Bithiah, the daughter of Pharaoh in I Chronicles 4:17 (or 18, in other versions.) According to that passage, Bithiah married and had children with an Israelite named Mered. Josephus, however, calls Moses' adoptive mother "Thermuthis," not "Bithiah" (Antiquities 2:232).

The rabbis portray Bithiah positively, for she showed compassion by saving Moses from her father's evil decree. Some Jewish interpreters suggested that she was one of the few people who entered paradise alive, a reward for her kindness to Moses. The rabbis affirm that she left Egypt with the Israelites, and that the "Mered" she married was none other than Caleb, "who was called Mered ('rebellion') because, as she rebelled against her father and her family, so did Caleb 'rebel' when he refused to follow the evil counsels of the spies" (Numbers 14). See JewishEncyclopedia.com - BITHIAH. Caleb was not the only one who had another name, however, for the name "Bithiah" means "daughter of Yah" in Hebrew. I Chronicles and rabbinic literature may hold that she changed her name when she joined the Israelites. Maybe her Egyptian name was "Thermuthis," as Josephus narrates!

Here's my impression of how the movies portray Bithiah:

1. Ten Commandments (1956): This movie is closest to I Chronicles 4:17 and rabbinic literature. Bithiah leaves with the Israelites at the Exodus, and, after the Passover, she is continually with a Hebrew named "Mered" (or so he is identified in the Internet Movie Database--see The Ten Commandments (1956)). The movie departs from rabbinic literature in that Mered and Caleb are two different characters. In the movie, Caleb mocks Bithiah when she tries to join Moses' Passover meal, whereas Mered welcomes her. Although the commandments in the movie were in the ancient Hebrew script, its authors may not have been sensitive to the meaning of the name "Mered," or "Bithiah," for that matter. After all, why would the Egyptians call her a name that means "daughter of Yah" in Hebrew?

I love the Ten Commandment's portrayal of Bithiah most of all, for it emphasizes her spiritual growth. She goes from saying "This desert god is the hope of the hopeless" to confronting the worshippers of the golden calf in the wilderness.

2. Moses, with Burt Lancaster (1974): She draws Moses from the river, and that's it!

3. Moses, with Ben Kingsley (1996): Her portrayal in this movie is not all that positive. She adopts Moses, and all of Pharaoh's court knows that he's not a real Egyptian. As Merneptah (played by Frank Langella) mockingly inquires, "When is an Egyptian not an Egyptian?" Bithiah seems to feel ashamed that she adopted Moses. She also tries to force him to be an Egyptian, even though he has a greater affinity with the Hebrew slaves and their God. My impression here is that she adopted Moses because she disliked being childless, but she wasn't too happy with her decision. She does not love Moses like the Bithiahs in the other movies.

4. Prince of Egypt (1998): One of my favorite scenes in this movie is when Moses and Rameses come to a celebration, and the Egyptian priests bring them a present: a Moabite woman (Tzipporah, who later becomes Moses' wife). Tzipporah tries to escape and Moses humiliates her, to the laughter and applause of his Egyptian guests. When Moses looks at his adoptive mother, she bows her head in shame.

Maybe Bithiah thought that Moses should grow up, but I'd like to believe that she had a humanitarian impulse. Even though she was part of the pampered elite and probably didn't think too much about the poor and the suffering, she wanted Moses to treat everyone with respect, even a Moabite woman from the desert.

5. Ten Commandments (2006): Bithiah in this movie really loves Moses, and she's also a woman of her word. When she gives baby Moses to his true mother, Jochabed, Jochabed makes her swear that she will tell Moses that the Israelites are his people, too. And Bithiah keeps her vow.

Bithiah never understands what Moses is doing on God's behalf, but she still loves him. Unfortunately, Moses is pretty rude to her when they finally part ways, for he walks away from her without saying a word. He must not want anything to do with his Egyptian background! At least Charlton Heston's Moses honored Bithiah as the woman who brought him up.

Bithiah in Demille's version was probably more open to Moses' work because she was an outcast from Egyptian society: She was put on house-arrest after the Egyptians learned she'd adopted a Hebrew. Bithiah in the 2006 version was still entrenched in the system, however, so she couldn't understand why Moses was mad at her people.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"None Dare Call It Conspiracy" Tuesday

Years ago, I read Gary Allen's controversial 1971 book, None Dare Call It Conspiracy. Its premise is that international bankers and power elites are working to create a one world government. I don't remember if Allen actually substantiated that claim, but he did highlight some pretty fishy facts, such as prominent financiers' support for the Bolshevik Revolution and Adolf Hitler.

Three things last night reminded me of this book:

1. Glenn Beck was saying that we should redefine the political spectrum, and he proposed a model that was identical with that of Gary Allen in None Dare Call It Conspiracy.

Many experts place Communism on the Left and Fascism on the Right, but Allen views that as complete nonsense. Where would one put a libertarian or an anarchist on such a spectrum?, he asks. The model that Gary Allen and Glenn Beck propose is this: put totalitarianism and State authoritarianism on the Left, and anarchy (no government at all) on the Right. In the center-right is a limited constitutional government, the best system that humans can devise (according to Allen and Beck).

I agree with Allen and Beck that our current political spectrum is problematic in that it excludes anarchists and libertarians from simple categorization. But I don't know if their model is any better. Right now, both liberals and conservatives support a mixture of liberty and authoritarianism. Many liberals love government authority in the economic sphere, but they tend to oppose it in the social and (to some extent) criminal realms. Many conservatives are more libertarian economically, but they also want to ban pornography, and they prioritize catching and punishing criminals over "due process." So I don't know what the ideal political spectrum would look like.

2. I watched The Mary Kate Latourneau Story: All-American Girl. Mary Kate Latourneau was a teacher who had sex with one of her students. Her father was ultra-conservative Congressman John Schmitz, who ran for President in 1972 with the American Independent Party and wrote the introduction to Allen's None Dare Call It Conspiracy.

I watched the movie specifically to see how it would portray Schmitz. Overall, it presented him as a nice guy whose principles were too high. He opposed sex education because he thought it encouraged promiscuity, but he himself had children by a mistress. And, while he may have been "Mr. Law and Order" in his political beliefs, he preferred that his daughter receive therapy and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Near the end of the movie, he tried to reconcile his daughter's legal situation with his own conservative beliefs. He said that, in the old days, statutory rape laws only applied to men, and Mary Kate's judge was probably a liberal feminist who was retaliating against Schmitz for his prominent opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Now, I'm somewhat of a Phyllis Schlafly fan myself, but I think statutory rape laws should apply to both men and women. Why should women be exempt from them? That wouldn't be fair!

In a flashback at the beginning, Schmitz is having his children recite the "right" political beliefs at the dinner table. His son remarks that Nixon is a hypocrite for aiding Red China, which supports the very Communists who are killing American boys in Vietnam. That's a valid point, but I think a big goal of Nixon's detente was to use the Communist countries against each other.

3. I was reading Donald Warren's Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin the Father of Hate Radio. Charles Coughlin was a prominent radio priest in the 1930's, and he spoke against Communism, international bankers, and Franklin Roosevelt. He is usually placed on the far right of the political spectrum, but he had ideas that could be construed as leftist (e.g., living wage, nationalization, abolishing the gold standard, etc.). Again, our political spectrum doesn't always allow for easy categorization!

Coughlin is considered by historians to be anti-Semitic, and many of his public and private statements may indeed deserve that label. But he did not view himself as such, for he went to great pains to stress that he wasn't attacking all Jews, but only the ones who were atheists, Communists, or international bankers. And he acknowledged that Gentiles could fall into these categories as well.

That reminds me of something Gary Allen says in None Dare Call It Conspiracy. According to Allen, many people shy away from criticizing international bankers because such a practice has historically coincided with anti-Semitism. But, as Allen notes, there are many international bankers who are not Jewish.

A possible problem with Coughlin, Allen, etc. is that they seem to assume that the international bankers and rich financiers are on the same side. But we can see from their own accounts that such is not the case. Coughlin lambasted the rich bankers for funding the Bolsheviks, but he himself had support from rich financiers (e.g., Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy). Plus, as Allen contends, rich financiers were also supporting the Hitler regime, for which Coughlin had some sympathy (although he also criticized it). I'm not sure what their agenda was. Maybe they just wanted to make money.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Biblical Diversity and Harmonization: The Case of James McGrath

Many biblical scholars affirm that the biblical writings are diverse from one another in their ideas. Conservatives assert that the Bible never contradicts itself because it is divinely-inspired, whereas liberals have no problem claiming that the Bible is contradictory, since it was written by different people who did not share the exact same religious worldview.

But how do religious liberals (or even conservatives who acknowledge biblical diversity) find spiritual value in a contradictory document? Do they accept some things in the Bible while rejecting others? Do they seek a common thread that runs through all of the diverse biblical writings, such as a loving God or social justice? Do they think that the Bible contains a "big picture" that is more than the sum of its diverse parts?

I'm sure that each of these approaches has someone who follows it. Today, I want to look at how James McGrath interacts with such issues in some of his blogposts. But please remember this: James McGrath has been blogging for a long time, and I haven't read all of his posts and comments. Consequently, this post of mine is not an exhaustive treatment of his beliefs.

My format in this post will be as follows: I will identify a topic, include links to McGrath's posts, and then interact with them. The topics will be biblical diversity, the deity of Christ, Christian exclusivism, and the substitutionary atonement.

1. Biblical Diversity

The Bible: Pure or Special Blend?
Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted

In the "Review of Bart Ehrman," McGrath disagrees with fundamentalist tendencies to harmonize the Bible's passages on Jesus' resurrection. He also states that fundamentalism often goes against what the Bible actually says, and that fundamentalists themselves "pick-and-choose" what they deem to be authoritative in the Bible, even if they assert the contrary. In "The Bible: Pure or Special Blend," McGrath says that Christians would do well to appreciate the diverse voices in the Bible. In these posts, McGrath seems to affirm biblical diversity while dismissing fundamentalist attempts to harmonize biblical contradictions.

2. Deity of Christ

Incarnation in Luke-Acts and in John?
Following the Historical Jesus

In a comment under "Following the Historical Jesus," McGrath implies that one should not conclude that Jesus is God on the basis of the Gospel of John. His reason may be that the Gospel of John is later than the other Gospels, which do not claim that Jesus was God. Here, McGrath prioritizes the earlier Gospels over John in his attempt to understand what Jesus believed about himself. In "Information in Luke-Acts and in John," however, McGrath asks a profound question: Often, Christians read Luke and the other synoptics in light of John's claim that Jesus is God. But suppose we read John's claim in light of Luke? According to McGrath, Luke presents Jesus as filled with God's Spirit. Maybe John, when he calls Jesus God, is saying that Jesus was so filled with God's spirit and transparent to God's purposes that he was practically identical to the divine, even though he also affirmed that the Father was superior to him. McGrath draws a parallel with Islamic mystics, who subsumed their own identities in their devotion to God. Although McGrath affirms biblical diversity in this post, his approach here seems to be rather harmonistic, in that he tries to reconcile the different Christologies of Luke and John.

3. Exclusivism vs. Inclusivism

Is Jesus the Only Way? Not according to most Christians...or the Bible!
Krister Stendahl on Religious Pluralism

The issue here is whether or not non-Christians can be saved. Christian exclusivists maintain that belief in Jesus is absolutely necessary for salvation and a relationship with God, thereby excluding people from other religions. In "Is Jesus the Only Way?," McGrath asks why Christians must prioritize exclusivist passages such as John 14:6 ("No one comes to the Father but through me") over more inclusivist passages of Scripture, as when Jesus heals people and commends their faith, without requiring them to convert to monotheism or understand who he is. Here, McGrath seems to prioritize certain passages over others. In "Krister Stendahl on Religious Pluralism," however, he's open to Krister Stendahl's non-exclusivistic interpretations of John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. Ultimately, McGrath may have problems dismissing the exclusivistic passages in favor of inclusivist ones, so he's open to alternative interpretations of the former.

4. Substitutionary Atonement

What's Wrong With Penal Substitution?
What Do You Say That I Did?
Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples

Did Christ die in place of sinners and pay the penalty for their sin, a doctrine known as "penal substitution"? McGrath says "no." For him, not only is that unfair, but the Bible doesn't even teach it. The Bible often presents God forgiving people without a blood substitute, and it also affirms that one man cannot die for another (see Exodus 32:33, which McGrath does not actually cite) but that people die for their own sins. For McGrath, the model of atonement that Paul presents is participatory, in which believers die with Christ, rather than Christ dying in place of believers. McGrath does not deny that certain passages in the New Testament view the blood of Christ as expiatory for sin, a position that is salient in Hebrews. Although McGrath asks in "Celebrating Easter" why Christians prioritize Hebrews so much, since it barely made the canon, he interprets Hebrews without reference to penal substitution. For McGrath, in Hebrews, the blood of Jesus atoned for our sins by cleansing the heavenly sanctuary, as blood is a cleansing agent within Leviticus. McGrath sees no need for the substitutionary atonement here!

So what is my point in all of this? My point is that even a religious liberal like James McGrath sees some need to harmonize the diverse passages of Scripture, as much as he may oppose harmonization. We can appreciate biblical diversity, but (in my opinion) certain questions are unavoidable for those who want to view the Bible as authoritative on how God relates to humanity. "Which opinion within the Bible should I select as authoritative, and why that opinion and not another one?" Like many conservatives, McGrath desires some consistency throughout the Bible, rather than viewing it as a mess of contradictory ideas that confuse believers on what God actually wants.

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