Friday, September 30, 2011

A Good Side to Harold Lauder

For my write-up today on Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, I’ll revise somewhat my impression of Harold Lauder. In my post here, I said that my impression of Harold as he appears in the book was not favorable, for Harold struck me as cold because he was not sad about the deaths of his parents to the superflu. I also felt that Harold was not as much of a gentleman in the book as he was in the TV miniseries. So far, I still think that Harold in the book has a vulgar side. But I see in Chapter 36 that he has started to weep over his parents’ deaths, for, while he initially felt that their deaths did not phase him as much as he expected, he is beginning to feel their absence. He was afraid of his strong, blue-collar father, and he felt that his mother preferred his older and popular sister Amy, who was embarrassed by Harold. But he notes that his mother was never unkind to him, and so he misses her.

In my post, I also wondered if Harold would try to go to the Centers for Disease Control in Vermont, when he expressed skepticism about the government, as he speculated that the superflu was the result of a government botch-up. It turns out that he will try to go to the CDC in Vermont, for other people might be there. After all, he notes, if anyone knows about the precautions to take for the superflu, it’s the people at the CDC. As I touched on in my post, Authority, many—threatened with chaos—will consider a far-less-than ideal authority to be better than no authority at all.

Harold also demonstrates a concern for the well-being of strangers when he paints on a barn that he and Fran are going to the CDC in Vermont, as well as paints directions to the CDC. That is so that other survivors can go there. I think I read on wikipedia that Harold’s sign actually helps Larry Underwood. Harold struck me as someone who only cared about himself when he took an expensive car that belonged to someone who had just died of the superflu. But he’s not thoroughly cold, for he does attempt to help people out with the sign. From what I have read on wikipedia, Harold’s struggle with the good and evil in himself will be a significant element of the book.

On a side note, was Harold really cold to take a car that belonged to a dead person? I thought so, but he’d probably say that life is for the living, so why worry? I didn’t have much of a problem with Larry and Rita taking food from the grocery store.

Egyptian and Greek Influence on Jewish Religion

I finished The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period. I particularly liked J. Gwyn Griffiths' essay, "The legacy of Egypt in Judaism". Griffiths asks: Why should we assume that Jews absorbed such ideas as post-mortem judgment and messianism from the Zoroastrians in Persia, when they could have gotten them from Egypt, for Egypt had a belief in post-mortem judgment as well as talked about deliverers in the last days? Griffiths does not think that the Jews absorbed the notion of eternal torment from Egypt, however, for the Egyptians were essentially annihilationist regarding the fate of the wicked. Griffiths posits that the Jews got eternal torment from the Greeks, "since an early Greek tradition presents Tityus, Tantalus and Sisyphus as sinners who are tormented ceaselessly" (page 1049).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Authority

On page 325 of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, Fran thinks the following:

“If the system of authority had temporarily broken down, they would just have to find the scattered others and re-form it. It didn’t occur to her to wonder why ‘authority’ seemed to be such a necessary thing to have, any more than it occurred to her to wonder why she had automatically felt responsible for Harold. It just was. Structure was a necessary thing.”

I can somewhat identify with Fran here on authority. While I like to read about people who challenge authority, I like for someone to be in charge because there are then structures in place that can help me. As Jack said on LOST, “Live together, or die alone.” But a fear of chaos and anarchy is why there are people who have preferred or tolerated strong dictators: a strong leader is better than chaos, in the eyes of some.

But what if one disagrees out of principle with what an authority is doing? Even that could lead to chaos, unless there are people who are willing to replace the oppressive authority with an alternative government, one that is able to gain acceptance and legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of people. This was the case with the American Revolution.

Plato’s Socrates in Crito, Henry David Thoreau, and others resolved to disobey laws that they deemed unjust, and yet they agreed to suffer legal punishment because the authority structure needed to be maintained for the common good. (Or I can say that about Plato’s Socrates, but I have not read much of Thoreau.) They had a way to challenge authority with a higher law, while acknowledging the necessity of the authority structure.

UPDATE: See Looney's comments. I may be reading civil disobedience into Crito. It's been a while since I read it.

Temple Grandin

I watched Temple Grandin last night. Temple Grandin is an autistic lady who has made significant contributions to the field of animal husbandry. There are many things that I can say about this movie, which deservedly got a number of Emmy wins and nominations. I’ll comment on three issues, though:

1. I’ll use Temple’s Mom as a starting-point to discuss the various characters’ interactions with Temple. Temple’s Mom somewhat surprised me, for I expected her to be more like Temple’s aunt on the movie: accepting of Temple and her idiosyncrasies, yet gently teaching her what is socially acceptable and unacceptable. But my impression was that Temple’s Mom saw Temple the way that many in society did—as somewhat of a freak—although she loved her daughter and came to be proud of her, especially in the touching scene at the end of the movie where Temple was speaking to an autistic conference about her life and people were interested in what she had to say. This reminded me of something I heard a person with Asperger’s say at a group. This man had a son who also had Asperger’s, and his ex-wife was neurotypical. He said that his son was getting a healthy balance, for, while he could comfort his son from a perspective of understanding, the child’s mother could point out what he’s doing that’s odd and that may be putting people off. Temple’s mother reminded me of what this man said about his ex-wife, for she was candid with Temple about what she was doing that was off (i.e., Temple wanted to talk about cows at a dinner party, but people there didn’t want to hear about that, even though, as Temple pointed out, they asked her!).

I especially liked Temple’s boarding school science teacher, Professor Carlock, a gentle person who saw potential in Temple, giving her science experiments to do and even offering her help and assistance after she had graduated from the boarding school—when she was struggling with college and later trying to make her way in the field of animal husbandry. He was the person who taught Temple and her mother that Temple was different, but not inferior, and he gave Temple guidance on a career she could pursue. She told him she wanted to study cows, and he replied that such a field is called animal husbandry.

I also liked Temple’s second room-mate at college, Amy, who was blind. Unlike many of the other students and people Temple knew—who saw Temple as a freak and usually needed to be impressed by something remarkable that Temple did before they accepted her—Amy accepted Temple and her idiosyncrasies, and they both also enjoyed some of the same things, like Star Trek. To a lesser extent, I think the same thing about the lady Temple encountered at the grocery store, who saw that Temple was afraid of the electronic door and helped her out. This lady proved to be an important connection to Temple, for her husband was a big player in animal husbandry. Temple said that she walked through a door, and the lady agreed, noting that she helped her through it. That was true, both literally and metaphorically.

2. One area in which I identified with Temple was that some of her insights about animal husbandry initially appeared to be insignificant, but she was able to make them significant by showing how they fit into a broader picture. When Temple said that the cattle were moving in a circle peacefully, her professor sarcastically replied that this was obvious. When Temple proposed to write her thesis on cows’ mooing, her adviser thought that was beneath the school's standards. But Temple’s insights fit into a broader project that she had—to create a system in which cattle would be moved along in a manner that would be calming to them—and she noted that her proposal would save money. I myself have many stray thoughts, but part of my challenge is to show how those thoughts can be significant and helpful to people in my field.

3. As a person with Asperger’s, I identified with some of how Temple came across, but not with other points. I myself can be blunt and say the wrong thing. My eye contact is probably better than Temple’s on the movie, but there’s room for improvement. Where I differ is that I don’t take everything literally, and I don’t have a photographic memory.

In the movie, Temple was helped by a squeezing machine, the sort that calms cows down. That made her more relaxed and sociable. I don’t know if that could work for me, but it would be nice to do something that puts me in a state of calm and peace, especially for social situations.

The real Temple Grandin actually comes across as more socially adept and articulate than the depiction of her in the movie, but she probably became that way after years of growth and learning.

Good movie!

The Am Ha-Aretz, Sinners, and the Prodigal Son

I went to my church’s Bible study last night. We’re going through Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, which is about Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Tim Keller doesn’t like that title for the parable, for it concerns two sons and a father, who is prodigal in his generosity. But I use that title because many of my readers know the parable by that name.)

We were talking about the Pharisees, the tax-collectors, and the sinners, and the pastor was saying that the Pharisees regarded anyone who was not in their group as a sinner. I read something about this topic a week ago, in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period. I found that I was both agreeing and also disagreeing with my pastor, but (perhaps fortunately, since I don’t like to make waves) I could not articulate where I agreed and disagreed, for my thoughts were jumbled in my mind. I know the view of Jacob Neusner and many other scholars of rabbinics (except for E.P. Sanders) that the Pharisees had an exclusive system of table fellowship, in which people partook of a meal together according to rules of purity and hoped (in some manner) to experience God that way. I have read in rabbinic sources and scholarship on the rabbis (who considered themselves the successors to the Pharisees) that the rabbis had a contemptuous attitude towards the am ha-aretz, the Jews who were not scrupulous in observing certain rules (i.e., separating tithes and the heave offering from their produce). But I vaguely recalled reading in The Cambridge History of Judaism that the Pharisees did not regard the am ha-aretz as sinners, for sinners were those who knowingly rebelled against God’s rules, not those who merely neglected them. And did the Pharisees believe that only they would enter the World to Come? There is a passage in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10 saying that all Israel will have a place in the World to Come, plus there are views there that those Jews who are somewhere between good and evil will enter it. But rabbinic literature often talks about Israelites who would not enter the World to Come, and I could not remember what it says about the am ha-aretz.

I did find the passage in The Cambridge History of Judaism that was vaguely in my mind, however. It was on pages 636-643 of “Jesus: from the Jewish point of view”, by W.D. Davies and E.P. Sanders. According to Davies and Sanders, the am ha-aretz are those “who either are not scholars or who are not sufficiently rigorous in buying, selling and preparing food.” Davies and Sanders (at least here) maintain that the Pharisses thought that even ordinary Israelites should obey the priestly purity rules in handling and eating food, and so they looked down on the am ha-aretz for not being scrupulous. But Davies and Sanders argue that the Pharisees did not regard the am ha-aretz as sinners. They quote Mishnah Avot 5:10, which lists four groups: the one who says “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is in the intermediate category; the one who says “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine” is an ignorant am ha-aretz; the one who says “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours” is a pious person; and the one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked. The am ha-aretz here is ignorant, but he’s not a sinner. Davies and Sanders cite t. ‘Abod Zar. 3.10, in which Rabbi Gamaliel gives his daughter in marriage to an am ha-aretz, and B.T. B. Metz. 33b, in which Rabbi Judah (a fourth generation Tanna) includes the am ha-aretz in the Israel that will receive God’s salvation.

According to Davies and Sanders, sinners were not people who merely committed sins, for everyone did that. Rather, they were people who committed sins habitually and who thereby knowingly placed themselves outside of God’s covenant with Israel. Gentiles were sinners by virtue of being outside of God’s covenant, period, which was why Paul used the term “Gentile sinners” in Galatians 2:15. (At the same time, rabbinic literature does talk about righteous Gentiles.) Jacob Neusner would probably disagree with how Davies and Sanders are using rabbinic sources here, for they are saying that later material is somehow relevant to the time of the Pharisees. At the same time, I do not think that we should assume that the Pharisees considered anyone outside of their group to be sinful or hell-bound, without evidence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Neusner would agree with me on this (not that he even knows of me). 

The argument of Davies and Sanders was that many Pharisees disliked Jesus, not because he was hanging around with ordinary Jews who were not scholars and were not overly scrupulous in certain legal details, but rather because he was eating with those who sinned enough that they placed themselves outside of God’s covenant. In my opinion, this fits the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the younger son deliberately places himself outside of a relationship with his father so he can be independent and live a profligate life. Jesus had a heart for these kinds of people, which was why he hung around them—he wanted the lost to be found. Many Pharisees were like Jesus in that they believed that a sinner could repent, but the Pharisees’ separatist rules may have hindered them from reaching out to people.

All of this said, I think that many of the issues that we discussed at the Bible study group last night are relevant to what I just said about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, under the influence of Davies and Sanders. Many Christians want to reach out to those who violate moral standards, but they fear being influenced by them and being led down a wrong road. But we agreed that we should be friendly to everyone who enters our church’s doors, even if they show up to our service drunk. And, whereas some rabbis had a system that distinguished among the righteous, the intermediate, the am ha-aretz, and the wicked, perhaps Jesus was presenting another point-of-view: that we’re all sinners. I’m not saying that Jesus (or, for those who don’t ascribe certain words to Jesus, early Christianity) thought that all sins were equal and deserved the same judgment, for Jesus in John 19:11 refers to a greater sin, and Luke 12:47-48 presents a harsher punishment for those who know the master’s will and do it not, whereas those who unknowingly disobey receive a lesser punishment. But I do believe that humility is important—that we shouldn’t “minister at” people, but “to” people (as someone in the study said). I know that I’ve made mistakes, and I still do. If I had received certain cards in life, or if I had succumbed to certain temptations, I could have ended up as the sort of person on whom society looks down. Even ministering to others should not occur from some spiritual or moral hilltop, in my opinion, but it should proceed on the assumption that we all have made mistakes.

Gentiles and the Torah

In my reading today of The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 3: The Early Roman Period, I found information that related to Jewish attitudes towards Gentile observance of the Torah, which is an interest of mine.

First of all, on pages 899-900 of his essay "Philo of Alexandria", C. Mondesert states that the first century C.E. Jewish Hellenist Philo of Alexandria believed that the "Law of God, of nature and of Moses...should rightly govern the whole of humanity." Mondesert also states that Philo recognized that the religion of the Jews resulted in anti-Semitism because it separated the Jews from other people, and Philo's solution to this was a Messianism based, not on a conquering Messiah, but rather on "the adoption of the Law by the whole universe, the conversion of humanity to the God of the Jews and to that religion" (Mondesert's words).

Second, on page 944 of "The rabbi in second-century Jewish society", Shaye Cohen says that "The first century BCE and the first century CE were the heyday of Jewish proselyting", and that conversions to Judaism "abated in the second century", but did not cease. Elsewhere in this book (and I will not search for the place where, but it's in my notes), it has been argued that Jews became more hostile to Gentiles after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and I wonder if that could relate to the decrease in Jewish proselytizing (which may be a complex issue, period, since I have also seen references in this book to works that appear to challenge the notion that Judaism was ever a missionary religion). At the same time, for some reason, Cohen states on page 956: "The Fathers of Alexandria and the Rabbis of Palestine shared a common vision. Each wanted to win the world over to the true faith, but neither would have been comfortable with a real mass movement." This is after 70 C.E. The context of Cohen's statement here is his discussion of how Judaism and Christianity combined secrecy with openness. His argument is probably that they were keeping secrets to avoid becoming a mass movement, even though they also wanted to "win the world over to the true faith".

Third, on pages 908-909 of "Josephus (CE 37-c. 100)", L.H. Feldman notes that Josephus' descriptions of Jewish law differ from that of the Mishnah, and one reason Feldman offers for this is that Josephus wants to show that Jewish law is just as righteous as the Noachide commandments, which Gentiles have to observe. For example, Josephus says that a judge accepting a bribe must be put to death, which is not in the Mishnah, and Josephus also equates abortion with infanticide, whereas the Mishnah "does not regard the unborn foetus as a human being and justifies killing it to save the mother if the majority of it has not emerged" (Feldman's words). (The references on abortion are Josephus' Against Apion 11.102, and Mishnah Nid. 5.3.) But the Noachide laws for Gentiles prescribe the death penalty for judges who take bribes, as well as prohibit abortion on the basis of Genesis 9:6 (b. Sanh. 57b), and Plato also (according to Plutarch's De placitis philosophorum 5.15) regards the fetus as a living being. According to Feldman, Josephus is trying to show that God's law for Jews is just as righteous as God's law for Gentiles. This relates to Gentiles observing the Torah in that Josephus assumes that Jews observe one set of laws, and Gentiles observe another, and yet Josephus is seeking to present both as righteous.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Common Sense

My reading through Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition will most likely be slow this week, since I find that I am getting tired easily after my wisdom teeth operation. Last night, I proceeded through Chapter 35, which I did not finish. In the part that I read, Larry was with Rita, and Rita’s feet were getting bloody because she was walking for some distance in a certain kind of shoes, which are not conducive to walking. Larry is incredulous because her feet could get an infection and she could die, and she never even thought of that because, as a rich person, others took care of her throughout much of her life. Larry resents having to take care of her, yet he fights back in his mind the accusations he has heard from others that he is a taker and not a giver. He decides that he is responsible for Rita. But Rita leaves him after he gets mad at her.

While Larry may feel that Rita lacks common sense or does not think things through, or is not even aware of things that others take into consideration, Larry himself can be absent-minded at times. For example, he forgets to bring a flashlight. That reminded me of something I heard at an Asperger’s support group, in which someone was speculating about why people with Asperger’s get on the nerves of people who are ordinarily nice and cool-headed. His reason was that the nice and cool headed people are worried about their minds deteriorating, and seeing people with Asperger’s reminds them of that dim fact. Several people may take exception to this idea, for people with Asperger’s do not have a deteriorated mind; their mind actually works that well, and there are many with Asperger’s who have high IQs. But, at least in my experience, as I speak for myself as one who has the syndrome, I often struggle to have common sense or to see the big picture, for I focus on details. But others may have different experiences. I’m just saying that, in certain respects, I identify with Rita.

But I try not to beat myself up because I have to be taught things that may be instinctual knowledge to others. Is it even instinctual knowledge for others? Don’t we all have to learn things that we do not know?

Complex Essenes, Complex Dead Sea Scrolls

In my reading today of The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I read about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'll highlight two passages in today's reading.

The first passage is on page 814, in Jonathan Campbell's essay "The Qumran sectarian writings":

"[The view that the Essenes produced the Dead Sea Scrolls] gained widespread assent in the course of the 1960s and 70s, albeit with disagreements over innumerable points of detail. In the process, several rival theories contrary to the emerging consensus were thrown up for consideration, arguing variously that those responsible for the DSS were Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots or early Christians or that the DSS had been brought from the library of the Jerusalem temple. However, such proposals failed to gain momentum, for the majority felt that the real but intermittent links connecting the sectarian DSS with these other Second Temple groupings paled into insignificance compared to the overwhelming case for an Essene identification. Not only had Pliny pinpointed am Essene site which must surely be Qumran. But clinching the argument were substantial agreements between 1QS and other sectarian compositions, on the one hand, and Philo and Josephus, on the other, across a range of features. Indeed, both bodies of material witness a deterministic outlook and hierarchical structure, avoidance of the Jerusalem Temple, an initiation procedure, communal property and food, and distinctive rules on ritual purity. Contradictions among the DSS, as well as between the DSS and the classical accounts, could be explained either by religious development over time or by the fact that Philo and Josephus were speaking in idealized yet imprecise terms as outsiders. Nevertheless, by the 1970s and 80s, some were expressing doubts about this Qumran-Essene synthesis. [They] argued that Essenism was a broader movement than that envisioned above and from it the Qumran group separated as a sect. Schism, not development through time, explains many of the differences between the manuscripts themselves and the contradictions they exhibit in relation to the classical writers."

The second passage is from page 852, which is from Daniel Falk's "Prayer in the Qumran texts":

"...a growing conviction among scholars that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls did not originate within the Qumran community---and many of the prayer texts fall into this category---raises the possibility that these prayers reflect Jewish practice more widely."

These passages are good "big picture" summaries of the state of Dead Sea Scrolls research, at least before 1999, when this book came out. Many appear to agree (with some exceptions) that the Qumran community that had the Dead Sea Scrolls was Essene, in some manner. But there is complexity to the issue. There are differences between elements of the Dead Sea Scrolls and how classical authors describe the Essenes, and there are also contradictions within the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. Moreover, there is growing denial that the Qumran community even produced many of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This is the big picture, but for specifics, a good source is Norman Golb's essay in this book, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and pre-Tannaitic Judaism". Among the issues that Golb addresses are contradictions in classical sources about whether or not the Essenes are celibate, contradictions within the Dead Sea Scrolls on whether there would be only one Messiah or two (kingly and priestly), and the solar calendar in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is not mentioned by the classical authors (i.e., Pliny, Philo, Josephus).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recovering from Wisdom Teeth Operation

Over the next few days, I’ll be recovering from having had three of my wisdom teeth pulled, so, if I don’t get to your comments during that time, it’s not because I’m being stuck up. I’ll probably still be writing blog posts—which may be short while I’m recovering—but it may take me a few days to get to the comments. I also don’t know if I’ll be attending my church’s Wednesday night Bible study this week—it will depend on how I feel tomorrow. But, even if I don’t attend, I’ll probably still write about the reading I did for this coming Wednesday’s session.

Last Sunday at church, my pastor prayed for me and for those who will be taking care of me, which, in my case, will be my Mom. It was appropriate for him to pray that, for I can be quite an impatient patient! But I told my Mom that I will try really hard not to manifest my grouchiness. I’m looking forward to eating cottage cheese, yogurt, and jello! I also have my Season 1 of the Dead Zone on-hand, and there is a good chance that I will chill while watching it. I’ll also put my academic reading slightly on hold, though it will not appear that way to my readers, since I write my academic posts ten or eleven days before they appear. Maybe I’ll read and blog about something else for a post that will appear ten or eleven days later, or I’ll just stick with writing my daily posts about The Stand. Stay tuned!

Dealing with the Past and the Present

I have two items for today’s write-up of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition:

1. In Chapter 34, we’re introduced to Donald Merwin Elbert, also known as the “Trashcan Man”. The Trashcan Man is a pyromaniac, and he got his nickname by burning people’s trash. But his burning of things got to be a menace: he burned an old lady’s pension check in her mailbox, he burned down a church, etc.

As is often the case in Stephen King’s books, a troubled character has a troubled past. Trash’s father was a violent criminal, who put his family on the run. Trash’s father was shot by the sheriff, who then went on to marry Trash’s mother. As Trash’s pyromania got to be too much, the sheriff (against the wishes of Trash’s mother) sent Trash to an electroshock treatment facility in Terre Haute, Indiana (which is close to where I grew up). After getting shock treatment, Trash had a hard time remembering things. He’d study for a test, forget what he studied, and get a 60 or a 40. Moreover, other people made fun of him and threw things at him.

In Chapter 34, the people Trash knew have died of the superflu. Trash is about to burn up a facility, and he sees a bug struggling in a puddle of gasoline. On page 292, we read: “I’m like that bug, he thought resentfully, and wondered what kind of a world it was where God would not only let you be caught in a big sticky mess like a bug in a puddle of gas, but leave you there alive and struggling for hours, maybe days…or, in his case, for years. It was a world that deserved to burn, that was what.”

Trash asks a good question. And one way to respond to the unfairness of life—in which some people are powerlessness and not allowed a shot at a good life—is to hate the world. A more appropriate way is to try to make the world better. How one can do that, I do not always know. It would have been nice for Trash (and society) had he found some other outlet for his pain than pyromania.

2. Chapter 35 is about Larry, who is with a lady named Rita. Page 302 states:

“She had asked him in a casual manner what he did for a living…the casual manner, he reflected with some resentment, of a person for whom anything so simple as ‘a living’ had never been a problem. I was a rock and roll singer, he told her, slightly amazed at how painless that past tense was. Sing with this band for a while, then that one. Sometimes a studio gig. She had nodded and that was the end of it. He had no urge to tell her about ‘Baby, Can You Dig Your Man?’—that was the past now. The gap between that life and this was so large he hadn’t really comprehended it yet. In that life he had been running away from a cocaine dealer; in this one he could bury a man in Central Park and accept that (more or less) as a matter of course.”

Larry had the ability to move on with life. He could not bring back his former life and fame, so why worry? He had to cope with his present. In a sense, he had a chance for a new beginning, and there were some blessings to that—for example, he was no longer being chased by a cocaine dealer!

The Stand deals some with the issue of how people interact with their past. Larry can leave his past behind. My impression is that Stu does so, too, since his past was so painful, with its frustrated dreams and the death of his wife when she was young. The pain may be there, but Stu has gotten used to bearing it and moving on. Harold has difficulty putting his past behind him, however, for his resentment at having been a nerd whom people picked on hinders him from accepting his new image as a respected member of the community. And Trashcan Man has a hard time putting out of his mind his horrible past and the people who made fun of him, even though they passed away due to the superflu.

Josephus and James, the Brother of Jesus

For my write-up today of Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I'll talk about some things from page 770 of J. Carleton Paget's essay on "Jewish Christianity".

Paget refers to Josephus' Antiquities 20:197-203. This passage is about the execution of James the brother of Jesus, which was ordered by the high priest Ananias. According to Josephus, Jews who were strict in their interpretation of the law successfully influenced King Agrippa II (through Governor Albinus) to depose Ananias as high priest. This passage is rather famous because it is one of the few (as in two) passages in Josephus' works that mentions Jesus. But it stood out to me in my reading today because it was saying that the high priest could execute somebody. In John 18:31, Jewish leaders tell Pilate that it is unlawful for them to put somebody to death, which was why they wanted the Romans to execute Jesus. And yet, in this passage of Josephus, and even in parts of the New Testament, they do precisely that. In Acts 6-9, Stephen is put to death by fellow Jews in his audience, and Saul murders Christians. Were they doing this unlawfully? In the Antiquities passage, Josephus notes that the conscientious Jews tell Governor Albinus that Ananias the high priest unlawfully assembled the Sanhedrin without Albinus' consent, so part of the problem was that Ananias was disobeying the law.

In a footnote on page 770, there is another interesting detail: According to Origen (Contra Celsum 2:13 and Commentary in Matthew 10:17) and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2:23), Josephus "attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of James" (Paget's words). No manuscript of Josephus says this, and Paget states that most scholars have dismissed this claim by Origen and Eusebius. But Paget refers to a scholar named Pierre-Antoine Bernheim who accepts the claim. Bernheim argues that a Christian could have removed Josephus' statement that Jerusalem was destroyed as divine punishment for the execution of James because Christianity holds that God punished Jerusalem for the death of Jesus, not James. Plus, Bernheim notes that Josephus had a positive attitude towards James, and so it's not unlikely that Josephus would blame the fall of Jerusalem on James' death. Paget disagrees with Bernheim, however, for he does not see any evidence that Josephus had a positive attitude regarding James. I myself doubt that Origen and Eusebius would make up a Josephan passage saying that Jerusalem was destroyed for the death of James, especially when it contradicted their belief that what happened in 70 C.E. was divine retaliation for the death of Jesus. But I do not know why scholars dismiss their claim.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chapter 32 of The Stand, and the Season Premiere of Desperate Housewives

In this post, I’ll write about Chapter 32 of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, and tie that in to the Desperate Housewives season premiere.

Chapter 32 focuses on Lloyd, who is in jail for murder. The problem for him is that the guards and the prisoners are dying from the super-flu, and so Lloyd is in jail with nobody bringing him meals. Lloyd remembers when he was a child and had a pet rabbit, whom he forgot to feed for a while. When he remembered that he had a rabbit, he went to see it and saw it was dead, and it’s paws were ragged and bloody. Lloyd thinks that the rabbit’s paws either became that way because it was trying to get out of its cage, or because it was so starving that it was attempting to eat its own paws.

It’s sad to read about living things that suffer and die. But, to Lloyd’s credit, he did not deliberately set out to kill the animal, as did Henry Bowers in IT when he groomed the Hanlons’ dog by feeding him to gain his trust, then fed the dog poison meat, or Patrick Hockstetter in IT, who got a perverse satisfaction out of killing animals. Lloyd is not a psychopath who takes pleasure in killing. At the same time, Lloyd does not strike me as one who is overly perturbed about the death that he has caused, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even when he comes close to thinking thoughts of regret about his murders, for example, he doesn’t really feel bad about his victims; rather, he blames his friend Poke for getting him into his mess, for Lloyd feels that he by himself was not ambitious and would only be capable of small-time trouble, not mass murder.

This brings me to Desperate Housewives, which also touched on sensitivity to the sanctity of life. In last season’s cliff-hanger, Carlos kills Gaby’s step-father, who raped her when she was a child and was threatening her as an adult. Gaby’s friends (led by Bree) help Carlos to cover it up. In the current season’s premiere, we see that Carlos and Susan have reservations about this. Carlos feels guilty that he has killed a man, and he seeks absolution, but his priest tells him that he will only receive it if he confesses what he did to the authorities. In a touching scene, Gaby tells Carlos that she absolves her husband, for she was terrified for years that her step-father would find her and hurt her.

Susan feels guilty that she is covering up a murder. She feels that she and her friends will be found out, but she also thinks that it was wrong for Carlos to take the life of Gaby’s step-father. After all, we’re not God, and perhaps there were people who cared about Gaby’s step-father and were wondering where he was. In one scene, Susan and her class are burying a pet rat (or some animal) who died (only she can’t mention God, because she’s told that one of the kid’s parents are atheists, lawyers, and major jerks), and Susan emotionally erupts and talks about the sanctity of life. Susan’s feelings of guilt are hurting her relationship with her husband, Mike, whom she cannot tell because she and her friends promised to keep their burial of Gaby’s step-father a secret. I think that Mike would understand if Susan told him what she did, since he himself has attempted acts of vigilantism in the past. But I can understand why she is not telling him what she and her friends did, for that would implicate him if their deed were discovered by the police, and he’s legally safer in a state of ignorance.

But somebody outside of this circle apparently knows, for Bree finds a note in her mailbox saying “I know what you did. It makes me sick. I’m going to tell.” And, of course, people who have watched the show for a long period of time know that this echoes Season 1, in which Martha Huber leaves Mary Alice a note that said precisely that, communicating that she knew that Mary Alice bought a baby from the mother and killed the mother when the mother tried to get him back. Martha Huber is dead, so who could have written this note to Bree? Rene? Ms. McCluskey? Did Paul Young from jail get someone to put the letter in the mailbox? Paul would know the exact wording of the letter to Mary Alice (who was his wife) years earlier, and he may still be holding on to hatred for the ladies of Wysteria Lane, who judged him, and he has wanted to show them that they are no better than he is.

Looking for a Healer

For today's write-up on The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I will refer to a quotation of Morton Smith's 1978 book, Jesus the Magician, which appears on pages 659-660 of E.P. Sanders and W.D. Davies' "Jesus: From the Jewish Point of View":

"...we must remember that ancient Palestine had no hospitals or insane asylums. The sick and insane had to be cared for by their families, in their homes. The burden for caring for them was often severe and sometimes, especially in cases of violent insanity, more than the family could bear---the afflicted were turned out of doors and left to wander like animals...Also, since rational medicine (except for surgery) was rudimentary, lingering and debilitating diseases must have been common, and the victims of these, too, had to be cared for at home. Accordingly, many people eagerly sought cures, not only for themselves, but also for their relatives. Doctors were inefficient, rare, and expensive. When a healer appears---a man who could perform miraculous cures, and who did so for nothing!---he was sure to be mobbed. In the crowds that swarmed around him desperate for cures, cures were sure to occur."

This is a powerful passage about the historical context of Jesus the healer.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Following Through

At church this morning, the main topic was following God’s instructions, but a sub-theme was following through on our promises. The pastor preached about Matthew 21:28-32, in which the father tells one son to work in the vineyard, and the son initially refuses but then obeys his father, whereas another son says that he will work in the vineyard but does not do so. In the children’s service, the pastor said that we should follow through on what we say we will do.

Overall, I think this is a good rule—at work, or in school, or even in church. If people are relying on me to do something that I promised, then I should do it. But I don’t absolutize following through on what I say, especially when someone is trying to shove something down my throat.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. When I was living in New York City, I was going to one of the Seventh-Day Adventist churches for a couple of weeks. I got tired of going to it because I wasn’t getting much out of it, plus I was tired of going to someone’s house for a communal meal every Sabbath—a meal that lasted until it got dark. (I like to have my afternoons to myself—for a Sabbath nap, or to watch a movie, or to read, etc.) The guy driving me home from that would ask me if he’d see me next Sabbath, and I’d say “yes” because I didn’t know how to say “no” in a diplomatic manner. I felt chained to that church, as if I had to go because I said I would. One time, I said “yes”, didn’t show up the next week, and didn’t feel one ounce of guilt about not showing up. People shouldn’t pressure others.

Then there was a Bible study group I was once in. One guy wasn’t coming, and the leader was incredulous because he’d ask the guy if he’d see him at the next Bible study meeting, and the guy answered “yes”, then the guy didn’t show up. But what did the leader expect? The guy was probably answering “yes” to get him off his back, and also so he wouldn’t have to listen to some manipulative sermon.

So I follow through when people depend on me, but not when people try to manipulate me to attend something.

Reading, One Cross Look

I have two items for my write-up today of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition:

1. On pages 258-259, I read the following:

“Three years ago Stu had gotten a book called Watership Down to send to a nephew of his in Waco. He had gotten out a box to put the book in, and then, because he hated to wrap presents even more than he hated to read, he had thumbed to the first page, thinking he would scan a little of it to see what it was about. He read that first page, then the second…and then he was enthralled. He had stayed up all night, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and plowing steadily along, the way a man does when he’s not much used to reading just for the pleasure of it. The thing turned out to be about rabbits…The stupidest, most cowardly animals of God’s earth…except the guy who wrote that book made them seem different. You really cared about them. It was a pretty damn good story, and Stu, who read at a snail’s pace, finished it two days later.”

I can identify with much of this. Often, I have difficulty getting into books. My mind wanders. I plow through them slowly. Sometimes, I get lost, as was the case when I read Chapter 31 of The Stand last night, which was about Kit Brandeton, from whom Randall Flagg got a car. I was thinking, “Who is this Kit Brandeton again?” In some cases, reading a summary of a book on wikipedia before I start a book helps me to read the book better, for at least I know what to expect—and my reading serves to flesh out an outline that is already in my mind, which I think is better than me having to figure out for myself what the outline is (and that can be difficult for me). But many people wouldn’t do that because they don’t like spoilers.

My difficulty in reading is a huge reason why I blog. Rather than reading a book and getting nothing out of it because my mind was wandering, or because the subject matter did not particularly thrill me, I read each book as if it has hidden treasure for me to blog about. I have found that I get more out of books that way, even books that would strike some as dry and boring.

But there are some times when I find a book that enthralls me. Like Stu, I read a page, then two, and then, before you know it, I’m making progress through the book, and I’m on my way to finishing it. I wish I could be that way with all books, but it only has occurred with some.

2. On page 259, Stu thinks about a man named Elder, who is an authority at the hospital where he is staying. Stu felt that Elder looking at him with his flat blue eyes drained the will out of him. I feel that way about some people: just one cross look from them is enough to put me into a tailspin and to ruin my day. How can I become stronger?

Davies and Sanders on Jesus

Today, in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I read an essay by W.D. Davies and E.P. Sanders, "Jesus: from the Jewish point of view".

Davies and Sanders present Jesus as one who predicted the imminent kingdom of God: God's dramatic intervention into the present world order to create a new order. And yet, Davies and Sanders acknowledge that Jesus believed that his own ministry (e.g., exorcisms) reflected the in-breaking of God's kingdom. According to Davies and Sanders, Jesus was controversial among Jewish authorities because he offered a path to repentance that was not based on Torah-observance, but rather on being a disciple of Jesus. Davies and Sanders do not think that Jesus was anti-Torah, however, for Christians after Jesus' death were still divided on issues such as the observance of the Sabbath and Jewish dietary regulations, showing that Jesus himself did not settle those issues. Davies and Sanders put these different things together by saying that Jesus' approach to the Torah was not systematic.

Davies and Sanders present a view that the Romans put Jesus to death because Jesus caused a disturbance during the Passover, when Jesus cleansed the Temple, and the Passover was an especially sensitive time. For Davies and Sander, Jesus was not just protesting corruption when he cleansed the Temple, but he was also predicting the destruction of the Temple by challenging the sacrificial system, which depended on the Temple merchants (since there were times when people had to purchase an acceptable animal at the Temple, especially since their own animals may be unacceptable). Although the Romans got rid of Jesus, they did not deem his followers to be a threat, and so the Romans did not kill people in the Jesus movement.

The criterion is dissimilarity appears in this essay---that's the criterion stating that things Jesus says or does that fit neither Judaism nor Christianity are most likely from him. Jesus in Matthew 8:12ff. and Luke 9:59ff. tells a man who wants to bury his father before following Jesus to let the dead bury their dead, and to seek the kingdom of God. Davies and Sanders deem this to be authentically from Jesus, for Jesus was going against the importance that Jewish religion placed on the burial of one's parents.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faith and Expectations

This post is a continuation of my series on feedback to my post, Ideas in Christianity Putting Some People’s Minds in a Tailspin!. Essentially, my post was about how certain ideas in evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity put some Christians’ minds in a tailspin, whereas other Christians are able to view the texts positively, to interpret them in a common-sense manner (which may or may not be faithful to the text’s meaning) that is conducive to a healthy attitude, or to ignore them altogether. Something that I should make clear is that the ideas I discussed are “in” evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. That does not mean that all evangelicals or fundamentalists hold them, but rather that there are elements of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that do.

An evangelical friend of mine commented: “I agree with you…that it is interesting how some people hear words of condemnation in the very same Scriptures in which some others hear words of hope. For example, the idea that faith is needed for healing drives some people bonkers because they hear it as a condemnation that they don’t have enough faith. I hear it as an encouragement, though, because it tells me that healing is possible and that faith is worth seeking. I never worry about not having enough of it, I just ask for more.”

This is a good point, and it leads me to ask certain questions. Should I have faith that God will heal, or merely that God can heal? And if I have faith that God will heal, what if he doesn’t? Am I at fault for not having faith?

I used to listen to Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now a lot, and I still do, on occasion. I remember him saying that we should expect the favor of God each day—that God will do us favors, that God will give us a good parking space, etc. But Joel knew that people would ask: What if I expect God to do favors, and he doesn’t? Joel reversed the question: What if I expect God to do favors, and he does? Joel said that, even if we don’t get the nearby parking place that we want, we should still be thanking and praising God as we walk—since we are healthy. Plus, Joel noted that it’s better to live in hope than in despair, even if we don’t get what we want.

I have talked about this topic before on this blog. I’ve said that I want to live in hope, but I also don’t want my expectations to be let down, for I see merit in the platitude that resentments are frustrated expectations. Even yesterday, in my post on Psalm 43, I talked about drawing closer to God in the midst of calamity, but also hoping that God will remove the calamity. I try to find a middle ground between optimism and despair. I don’t want my optimism to be cocky, for having humility makes me realize that I am not “more special” than anyone else and thus I need to do the work that is necessary for me to succeed; plus, humility can make me a team-player who is open to other people’s ideas, and that is important. But I also don’t want a despair that cripples me from even trying. I try to remind myself that, even if I have made mistakes, there is still hope that I will have a future. Perhaps I’d have the same sort of attitude if I were sick and desired healing. I don’t know.

So I think my evangelical friend is on to something: be encouraged to have faith, but don’t put yourself down if things don’t turn out as you expected.

Disinterested Nature? Introducing Harold Lauder

Last night, I read Chapter 28 of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. It focuses on Fran Goldsmith. I have two items:

1. Fran’s mother and father have just died from the superflu, and there are thoughts running through Fran’s mind that appear on first sight to be disconnected, when actually they are connected with each other. She thinks about how her father died, and also that it is “a beautiful summer’s day, flawless, the kind that the tourists came to the Maine seacoast for” (page 247). Fran then connects the two thoughts: “It was a beautiful warm day and her father was dead.”

I’m not entirely sure what the connection between these two thoughts is, but I can speculate. Did Fran feel slapped in the face because her father died and it was a beautiful day, as if nature were mocking her? Did she feel encouraged by the beautiful day? Or perhaps the point is that nature is indifferent to us: that there will be days that we consider to be beautiful even when we are not around to enjoy them (and a lot of humanity is dying off at this point of the book). Heck, scientists have said that there were such days before there even were human beings! On page 250, Fran sees the superflu in a “Book of Job” sort of way (though she does not mention the Book of Job): “Some weird disease seems to have spread across the entire country, maybe the entire world, mowing down the righteous and the unrighteous alike…” Nature seems to be disinterested. At the same time, I should note that a big point of the book is that some are immune to the superflu, for a reason maybe known only to God (in the book, that is).

2. Chapter 28 is where we first meet Harold Lauder. So far, I prefer Corin Nemec’s depiction of Harold in the miniseries to Harold in the book. In the miniseries, Harold had a crush on Fran since he was a little boy, and he was polite and gentlemanly to her and her father. He was also a poet who wrote a few poems for a notorious literary publication. And, after the superflu took most of the people in his town, he reflected to Fran that he remembers all those guys who used to give him wedgies, and he wanted them back.

Harold in the book, by contrast, strikes me as vulgar, cold, and not especially talented in writing. Harold checks Fran out while talking with her, and Fran speculates that he has an X-rated movie going on in his head. He does not seem to be affected by the death of his parents and his older sister, for he cavalierly remarks that life goes on. He also uses the deaths of many in town as an opportunity to get free stuff for himself, such as somebody else’s nice car and new shoes in a store. He wrote bizarre stories in the second-person. In contrast to the miniseries, he did not even offer to help Fran bury her father. He calls Fran “my child”, which reminds me more of Isaac on Children of the Corn than Harold in The Stand miniseries. But Harold does speak intelligently. There is one more difference between the book and the miniseries: in the miniseries, Harold essentially trusts the government, for he and Fran head to the Centers for Disease Control in Vermont to get advice on what to do next. In the book, by contrast, he realizes that the government created the virus and botched things up. But whether he and Fran will still try to get in touch with the government, I will have to see.

I prefer Harold from the miniseries, but I can still make do with Harold in the book and learn lessons. For instance, how did Harold get to be so cold? Fran speculates that Harold had never had a date in his life and that influenced him to have a worldly disdain for the world and for himself. Harold’s older sister was also a popular person and spoke about Harold with disgust. Harold may look at the world with disdain because he doesn’t fit into it, but to not care about the death of his very own parents? That is cold.

Morton Smith on Jesus in Josephus' Antiquities

For my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I will blog about something that Morton Smith says on pages 512-513 of his essay, "The Troublemakers". The topic is a reference to Jesus in Antiquities 18:63-64, which states the following (according to William Whiston's translation):

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

There is debate about how much of this passage is authentic, as some hold that it is partially authentic, while others say that it is not authentic at all, but rather was a Christian interpolation. You can read some of the pros and cons in the wikipedia article here. (And I don't want to read a bunch of bull about how wikipedia is not a good source. In many cases, it is not, but there are times when its articles are well documented and present solid information, as is the case with its article "Josephus on Jesus".)

Morton Smith argues that the passage is partially authentic. He says that the passage "probably reported the crucifixion, as ordered by Pilate, and ended as it now does: 'Even to the present the clan of Jesus, named after him, has not died out.'" Smith offers two reasons for the partial authenticity of the passage. First of all, Smith interprets Antiquities 20:200, which talks about a Sadducean high priest executing James "the brother of Jesus", as a cross-reference to Antiquities 18:63-64. Second, Smith states that "Josephus liked to commemorate holy eccentrics; besides Jesus and John he told of Judas the Essene (Bell. 1.78-80), another Jesus, son of Ananias (Bell. VI.300-9), etc." On page 513, Smith talks about Josephus' discussion of characters purporting to do miracles. One of them, an Egyptian prophet, became invisible after his followers were defeated (Antiquities 20:172), and Smith compares that to Jesus becoming invisible in Luke 24:31. Smith's point appears to be this: If Josephus reported on holy eccentrics and their movements, why should we assume that everything he says about Jesus and the Jesus movement is a Christian interpolation? Granted, Josephus most likely did not proclaim Jesus to be the Christ and the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies, but would it be so extraordinary for him at least to mention Jesus and the Jesus movement, since he talked about other purported holy men and their movements?

Wrestling with Forgiveness (and Hopefully Finding It)

I’m continuing my series on feedback I received to my post, Ideas in Christianity Putting Some People’s Minds in a Tailspin!.

I said the following: “To cite my own experience, I long had trouble with Jesus’ teaching that God will not forgive our sins if we don’t forgive others (see Matthew 6:14-15). That seems to me to be salvation by works, for it conditions God’s forgiveness and acceptance of me on my ability to push a grudge out of my system. This teaching depressed me for a long time…I’d be rich if I had a penny for every time that Christians brought in extra-biblical insights to explain away Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. I’ve been told that I am forgiven simply by accepting God’s free grace, but that lack of forgiveness on my part can hinder me from producing spiritual fruit. But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says that those who don’t forgive others will not be forgiven by God. Many have said that, if I haven’t forgiven others, then that indicates that I haven’t truly accepted God’s forgiveness of myself. When I hear that, being saved appears to involve a lot more work than evangelicals say it does!”

An evangelical friend of mine responded: “I think to say that the requirement to forgive others is a form of works misses the point. Forgiveness is all about relationships. God is saying that if we aren’t willing to forgive someone who’s sinned against us, then why should he forgive us, especially when our sin against him is much greater than the sins other people have committed against us? It’s not that we have to be perfect in forgiving others, but that we need to be willing to forgive others when we realize we’re holding something against them, because God has forgiven us. But it’s not about works, it’s about relationships.”

I vaguely understand what my friend is talking about. Perhaps one reason that I conceptualize forgiveness as “works” is my own difficulty in forming and sustaining relationships. Also, forgiveness is pretty hard for me. I wonder what exactly it entails. Getting rid of negative feelings? Having to be in a relationship with a person I don’t like, when social interaction is difficult for me in general, and I have issues with pretending to like a person whom I can’t stand (not that I haven’t done that on different occasions)?

It would be nice if I could receive God’s free grace and that would automatically make me want to forgive others. But things aren’t that simple, at least in my case. On the whole issue of our sin against God being greater than others’ sin against us, sure, I suppose I have believed that theoretically, because I felt that I had to do so in order to appease God or to escape hell. But, quite frankly, I have a hard time feeling that way. Granted, I’m responsible for the choices I make, but I am imperfect, like everyone else. And if I have a sinful nature, as Christians say I have, why should I feel guilty about the things that I have done?

And yet, as I look back, there were sins that I did that I shouldn’t have done, and didn’t have to do. Granted, I cannot really expunge sinful feelings from my system (i.e., pride, hate, lust, insecurity, etc.), but I didn’t have to make fun of people when I was younger. I shouldn’t have done so. I guess part of me feels that’s in the past and so it’s not relevant now. And yet, I myself dwell on things that others have said to me in the past. I do apply one standard to myself, and another standard to others. I can’t really manipulate myself to believe that my sins against God are greater than others’ sins against me. But I can at least recognize that we’re all in the same boat: I’ve done things I shouldn’t have done and didn’t have to do, and so have others.

I will add one more thing about resentment. I used to have resentment towards a friend of mine—over his put-downs, or my jealousy towards him. He passed on recently. I don’t have as much resentment against him now, and it’s because I realize that he had so much to contribute to this world, and I am sad that he can no longer make that contribution. I found myself applying the same insight to other people I resent. I was fantasizing this afternoon about winning the lottery and buying every scholarly publishing house, then preventing the publication of books and articles by people I don’t like. But then I thought: they have a contribution to make, and who would I be to stand in the way of that on account of my personal problems (not that my fantasy has much of a chance of becoming a reality!)?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Psalm 43

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 43 and its interpreters. I have two items:

1. The Psalmist wants God to deliver him from an ungodly nation so that he can return to God’s hill and dwelling to worship God. The Psalmist in v 3 asks that God might accomplish this by sending forth his light and truth, and the word translated as “truth” can also be rendered as “faithfulness”.

There are different interpretations of this verse. The fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia says that the light is contrasted with darkness, which is the Psalmist’s experience of calamities. The light, according to Theodore, is God’s support, which frees one from calamities. And the word “truth” means that God’s support is firm. Jewish interpreters interpret the light and the truth in reference to the Messiah and Elijah, with some viewing the light as the Messiah and the truth as Elijah, and others reversing the applications. Orthodox Jewish thinker Samson Raphael Hirsch affirms that the light and the truth are the Torah, the study of which disperses the gloom of the Jews even while they are in exile. Some view the reference to light in v 3 in terms of God’s clothing himself in light (Psalm 104:2), which may mean that the Psalmist is hoping for God to manifest himself and his faithfulness and to intervene to return the Jews to Zion. And E.W. Bullinger interprets the light and the truth as the Urim and the Thummim, which David lacked during his flight from Absalom. Bullinger’s point may be that David was longing to have access to God’s guidance through the Urim and the Thummim (which the high priest wore) so that he could get back to Jerusalem.

I see two kinds of interpretation here: One says that the Psalmist expresses hope that God’s light and truth will deliver the Psalmist from his calamities, whereas the other (namely, that of Rabbi Hirsch) holds that God’s light and truth sustain the Jews in the midst of their calamities, dispelling their gloom. I like the latter concept because I appreciate the notion of diving into the Torah when one is suffering in order to cope—the Torah, with its laws and stories and principles of justice. I have done this on numerous occasions (with the Bible, that is). At the same time, I would bet that even Rabbi Hirsch would maintain that the Jews also got hope from the Torah that their situation would concretely become better.

Peter Craigie, like many scholars, treats Psalm 43 as a continuation of Psalm 42, in which (according to Craigie) the Psalmist despairs even more as he fondly recalls his past experiences of worship at God’s sanctuary. But Craigie says that Psalm 43 marks a shift: that the Psalmist is moving from introspection and nostalgia to hope in God, who has the power to deliver him. Personally speaking, I look for God’s deliverance and breakthrough. At the present time, however, I will continue to cope and to use my current situation as an opportunity to become closer to God. That’s what wilderness experiences are for. That brings me to my second item.

2. The Psalmist in Psalms 42-43 does not primarily focus on receiving physical blessings, although he would like for his experience of oppression to end. Rather, the Psalmist desires God. His main topic is on returning to the sanctuary so that he can worship and celebrate God. In Psalm 43:4, the Psalmist calls God the joy of his rejoicing. One could ask why the Psalmist couldn’t enjoy God even outside of the sanctuary, and the answer may be that the Psalmist felt that he was more in God’s presence when he was at God’s earthly dwelling-place.

At my church’s Bible study group, we listened to Tim Keller (on a DVD) say that the prodigal son and the older son in Jesus’ parable both wanted what their father had, not the father himself, the same way that many desire blessings from God, but not God. As Hank Hanegraaff continually asks, do we want the master, or what is on the master’s table? I must admit that I desire a relationship with God because I feel that can give me joy and security. To correct that situation, I think it may be helpful for me to come up with reasons that I should love God. The first century Greek historian Plutarch, in Aristeides 6:3, says that people envy the gods’ incorruptibility and fear their power, but they love the gods for their justice. God’s righteousness is a reason to love God. But worship in the Hebrew Bible also entailed thanking God for the harvest. One can love God for God’s love and goodness and righteousness, while also praising God for what he offers us from his table.

Larry, Alex, and Relationships

Last night, I read Chapter 27 of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition. One of the topics in that chapter was Larry Underwood’s love life. Larry met a lady named Yvonne at a movie theater, when he helped her to find her purse, and she treated him to dinner to celebrate. She treated him to dinner (rather than vice versa) because he said that he was really strapped for cash. You’d think that a woman wouldn’t go for a man who is strapped for cash, but maybe women do, when the man is fun to be with. But there are probably no absolute laws on this.

Larry thinks back to his time with Yvonne, when they had their own place, which Yvonne decorated. He remembered Yvonne bringing him a can of beer while he was watching television, sitting on the arm of the chair, and rubbing his neck. He also recalled her home-cooked meals. But Larry and Yvonne had a falling out, and (as far as I could see) the book did not detail what that was about, unless it was implying that Larry was putting his girlfriend on hold so he could watch the World Series. But Larry looks back on that relationship with nostalgia. Page 236 says: “It had all seemed right, it had all seemed his. There hadn’t been one single thing hassling his mind. Nothing had been so good since then. Nothing.”

This reminds me of what I’ve heard from a dating guru, Doc Love, who says that men should look for a woman who is a giver. He even said that we (we men, that is) may find that we want to stick with a woman whose physical appearance is a 6 out of 10, since she is a giver. I think that is good advice, myself. But is it idealistic? I watched an episode of Family Ties recently, the one in which Alex met Lauren, a pretty psychology student, for a study she was doing on overachievers. She asked Alex what he was looking for in a woman, and Alex responded that he would like someone who is warm and supportive. Lauren replied sarcastically, “Do you want a woman or a cocker spaniel?”

Perhaps I could look for what Larry had when his relationship was good, and also the sort of relationship that Doc Love recommends. But what happened to Larry’s relationship in the end and that episode of Family Ties present an additional facet: that a relationship involves people, and, that being the case, things are not always ideal!

The Sadducean Bible, Jesus on Hating Parents, Baptism

For my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I have three items:

1. Did the Sadducees accept only the Pentateuch, while rejecting the Prophets? Gunter Stemberger, on page 436 of his essay, "The Sadducees---their history and doctrines", answers in the negative, even as he explains why some have arrived at that conclusion:

"The Church Fathers frequently state that the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch and rejected the Prophets. This assertion seems to be based on two points: first, on the confusion of the Sadducees and Samaritans, so frequent with the church fathers, who thought Dositheus to be the founder of the Sadducees; second, on a deduction from other points of Sadducean belief as known from the New Testament. There is no doubt that the Pentateuch had a special place of honour in Sadducean thinking; but this does not distinguish them from the Pharisees and the Rabbis. The books of Moses were the basis of Jewish law. It is, however, unthinkable that the Sadducees totally rejected the Prophets and the Writings (the Psalms were used in the daily liturgy of the Temple!). Probably only the book of Daniel with its text on the resurrection and, perhaps, Esther as the reading for the comparatively new festival of Purim, were not approved by the Sadducees. In general, however, the other parts of the Bible were certainly accepted although they did not enjoy the same degree of authority as the Torah."

Patristic references that Stemberger cites include Origen, Contra Celsum 1, 49; Jerome, Contra Luciferianos 23; and Pseudo-Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum. Stemberger also refers to S.J. Isser's The Dositheans: A Samaritan Sect in Late Antiquity. When certain church fathers said that Dositheus established the Sadducees, they were apparently confusing the Sadducees with the Samaritans, for the Dositheans were a Samaritan sect.

I remember hearing a preacher say that the reason that Jesus proved the resurrection to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 20 by referring to Exodus 3:6 is that Jesus could not refer to the Prophets or the Writings to substantiate the doctrine, since the Sadducees did not accept those parts of the Bible, but only the Pentateuch. But that may not necessarily have been the case. Perhaps Jesus referred to the Pentateuch because it was the most authoritative.

2. On page 455, Otto Betz in his essay on the Essenes quotes a passage from a Qumran text (which he cites as I QS 1.3f 9f see CD II.15f.) saying that one should "love all the children of light, each one according to his lot in the counsel of God, and abhor all the children of darkness, each one according to his guilt, which delivers him up to God's retribution".

A friend of mine has been posting some anti-Jesus remarks on her web site, and she has cited passages such as Luke 14:26, where Jesus exhorts his world-be disciples to hate their parents. I expressed doubt that Jesus wants his disciples to seethe against their parents and to wish ill upon them, for Jesus preaches love, even for enemies (Matthew 5:44ff.). I interpreted "hate" to mean that Jesus is telling his disciples to prefer him over their parents (Matthew 10:37): possibly to leave their families in order to follow him around (Matthew 8:21-22; 19:29-30), and also to choose Jesus if their families persecute them for being Christians (Matt. 10:35-37; Mark 13:12; Luke 12:51-53). I doubted that Jesus would desire for people to seethe against their parents, for that would make no sense. Who wants people to hate their parents? What would be the point?

As I read the Qumran text, however, I saw that at least one sect believed that people should hate those who were not a part of their group. If that is true of this apocalyptic sect, could it not be true of the Jesus movement, which was also apocalyptic, in that it predicted a cataclysm and divided the world into the children of light and the children of darkness (Matthew 13:36-43; Luke 16:8; John 12:36)?

Perhaps. But Jesus did preach love for enemies in the Sermon on the Mount, and some have contrasted this with the attitude of Qumran. Moreover, Jesus preached repentance and tried to recruit people into the Jesus movement, whereas the Essenes were more exclusive: people had to prove themselves in order to join. I think that my friend does well to ask questions and to present her reservations about Jesus, however, for I have often felt that I am the only one with those sorts of feelings (though mine are not as extreme as hers). Here many people around me present Jesus as a nice guy, and I'm scratching my head, wondering, "Well, what about this passage, and this passage, which appear to indicate otherwise?"

3. On pages 478-479 of "The baptist sects", Kurt Rudolph argues (if I am understanding him correctly) that the baptism of John itself was not intended to remove people's sins, but rather having an attitude of repentance was believed to do that. Josephus says in Antiquities 18:117 that people were already purified by justice when they came to John for baptism, which was for the cleansing of their bodies. Rudolph states that "The parallels with the Essene baptismal immersions are noteworthy; these also were only external manifestations of the inner disposition required even before the purificatory bath, which was brought about by the 'spirit of sanctity' (of I QS III.1-8; V.13-14)." But Rudolph thinks that the Christians interpreted John's baptism to be for the remission of sins (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:2ff.; Luke 3:1-6). So, if Rudolph is correct, John's baptism was what Christians who don't believe that baptism is required for salvation say it is: an outward manifestation of an inward cleansing. But the early Christians interpreted John's baptism according to what advocates of the "baptism is necessary for salvation" position maintain: something that cleanses people from sin.

Making Perfection the Enemy of the Good?

Yesterday, in my church’s Bible study on Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, we heard Tim Keller (on DVD) talk about how God delivers us, not just from our sins, but also from our motivations for righteousness—which can alienate us from God. If we are rooting our self-worth in our own good deeds, then that can take us away from sharing the heart of the father, as occurred when the prodigal son did not care about his father’s joy at the prodigal son’s return.

Someone in the group commented that we should ask ourselves what our motivation is for doing a good deed: is it to love God, or to glorify ourselves, or something else? It was interesting for me later that night to encounter a similar concept in a devotional I’m reading, Wisdom from the Bible: Daily Thoughts from the Proverbs, by Dan and Nancy Dick. The September 21 entry talks about a man going to St. Peter at the pearly gates, saying he’s ready for heaven because he gave to the poor, went to church, never cheated on his wife, and prayed twice a day. St. Peter responds that, actually, the man got tax deductions, wanted others’ approval, feared he’d get caught if he committed adultery, was allergic to alcohol, and only said grace before meals. The man then replies that he was hoping St. Peter wouldn’t know the difference! The devotional then goes on to say, “Not only are our actions important, but our reasons for them are important too.”

In my opinion, what matters is what one does with the insight that our motivations are important. If I take that to mean that I should never do a good deed unless my motivation is right, then that’s wrong, for I think the rabbis make sense when they say that we should do good even when our motivation is wrong, and that, hopefully, doing the good deed will lead us to have the right motivation. If the idea is that doing good deeds out of a wrong motivation may show that I’m not truly saved and am going to hell—since I’m trying to be my own Savior rather than trusting in God’s love in Jesus Christ—then the insight is not helpful to me there either, for nobody does good deeds out of a perfect motivation. Why should I add stress on myself for being imperfect? And why should I believe that God is out to play “Gotcha!” with me, showing me why I stink even when I do good things? But if the idea is that doing good deeds out of a wrong motivation alienates me from God—from intimacy with God and identification with how a loving God sees the world—then that is an incentive for me to try to have the right attitude. It’s not so much that God will torture me forever if my motives don’t consistently measure up to his standard. It’s rather that God wants for me to be like him—loving—and my motives may hinder me from that.

On a related note, the September 22 devotional in Wisdom from the Bible somewhat turned me off as well, for it contrasted a wealthy woman who gave to charity, and another woman who joined a mission team and actively worked and fought to improve people’s living conditions. The devotional said that the latter woman did better than the rich woman by giving of herself. The devotional then says, “We are avoiding judgment by giving everything we have to the service of God.” I hope this is not implying that people like the rich woman who gave to charity are going to hell. Perhaps it is referring to the judgment of believers, in which God judges people who are already saved according to their works, and hell is not a consideration in this judgment (according to those who believe in a judgment of believers). But, even then, why would God judge people for not being missionaries (or giving of themselves)? Being a missionary may be admirable, and, sure, I’d be content with missionaries receiving more rewards than me in heaven. But, heck, not everyone is cut out for missionary work! Moreover, what’s wrong with rich people giving to charity? The Bible often praises giving alms (or something) to the poor. Why make perfection the enemy of the good? What does that accomplish?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hell and The Encounter

I’m continuing my series on responses that I got to my post, Ideas in Christianity Putting Some People’s Minds in a Tailspin!.

I said the following: “I’ve heard different people who get their heads in a spin as they try to accept such issues as hell and God’s foreknowledge. I remember a young man calling into Focus on the Family’s Life on the Edge radio program, and he was disturbed by hell. One of the hosts was giving him the usual evangelical ‘You send yourself to hell’ spiel, but that did not satisfy the caller. He felt that God’s foreknowledge of all events took away people’s free-will, for God’s foreknowledge implies that the future is set in stone. When you add hell into the mix, there are people who can arrive at pretty disturbing conclusions, the kinds that can put some people’s minds into a tailspin.”

An evangelical friend of mine responded as follows: “…the thing that never seems to enter into the arguments about hell is that God has made a way of escaping it, and if we follow that way, we don’t have to go there. Hell is another example of consequence, the natural consequence of sin and rebellion. God is rescuing us from the consequences of our sin.”

I think that many people know the problems some have with that answer: What about those who have never heard the Gospel, or people who have heard the Gospel and yet there’s no proof that Christianity is the only true religion, so why should God expect people to accept that and not (say) Islam to escape hell? Regarding sin being a natural consequence, I can somewhat understand where my friend is coming from, for many evangelicals view hell as a post-mortem continuation of sinners’ choices on earth: on earth, sinners choose to do their own thing in independence from God, and they’ll continue doing that for all eternity in hell. I’m not sure how biblical that is, however, for, when I read the Bible, hell does not strike me as a natural consequence of sin, as if hell naturally flows from sin as an effect from a cause, but rather hell appears to me to be a punishment that God imposes on sinners. God created hell as a place where sinners could be punished. That doesn’t sound to me like a natural consequence of sin, but rather as something that’s a result of God’s intervention.

Regarding the whole issue of who has a chance for salvation, I was watching a Christian movie yesterday called The Encounter, in which a group of people come to a diner and meet Jesus Christ. Jesus essentially tells them that everyone on the face of the earth has a chance to be saved: that everyone encounters God in some manner, and is judged after death on how he or she responded to that call. Then, Jesus says that those who don’t encounter Jesus probably wouldn’t have accepted him anyway, which I consider to be ludicrous. But I liked what Jesus said about everyone having a chance to respond to God’s call—and, presumably, he means even those who never heard the Gospel. But what is responding to the call? Is it accepting God’s unconditional love? One of the characters told Jesus that he should know that she responded to the call a while back, and Jesus responded that he knew that she came forward at an altar call, but that Christianity was about more than walking down an aisle, for it entailed having a new heart and embarking on a new way of life. Jesus was essentially saying that she wasn’t saved, even though she made some formal, outward commitment.

I can somewhat see where Jesus in this movie is coming from, for what good is Christianity if it doesn’t somehow touch our lives and make us better (or new) people? I suppose that Christianity can still have some value to a person who does no good works, for that person can comfort herself that she is loved by God. But, in my opinion, part of faith is putting some things into practice, almost like a “use it or lose it” sort of deal. I have a hard time making that a requirement for salvation, however, for that seems to compromise salvation as a free gift from God. And yet, if God truly did hate sin, why would he allow a bunch of carnal Christians into heaven simply because they said some prayer, while eternally burning those who did similar deeds but did not say the magic words?

Certain strands of Christian universalism would say that many sinners may need to be cleansed after their death before they can enter God’s presence. Catholicism has a similar concept, purgatory, but it holds that purgatory only applies to Christians, not to everyone. Strands of Christian universalism, however, maintain that even non-Christians may go to a purgatory and be cleansed before entering heaven, or the new Jerusalem. I think that the movie The Encounter would respond, however, that some people are lost causes. There was one character who was once a football player and became a successful fast-food mogul, and he simply did not want to accept Jesus. He was proud of his accomplishments, which allowed him to rise above his blue-collar background, of which he was ashamed. He did not feel that he needed Jesus. What should God do with him? Let him into heaven, where he would be miserable in God’s presence? Burn him until he cries “uncle”? For many evangelicals, the best solution is for God to send him to hell.

But I guess my problem is with the eternity of hell. Sure, this guy may not be open to God’s love right now, but who’s to say that he will never, ever be open to it? Why foreclose on that possibility?

Chaos in Chapter 26 of The Stand

In my reading last night of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, I read Chapter 26, which was about the U.S. military’s attempt to prevent panic, or an out-and-out rebellion. This chapter said explicitly what was implied up to that point: that the U.S. Government created the superflu virus for the purpose of warfare (in violation of the Geneva Convention), and things got out of hand, as the virus escaped and impacted many Americans (and even people in other countries, since some in London and Hong Kong also have it). The military clamps down on the press, which sometimes manages to overcome it and to get the truth out. But the military prevails. And yet, the result is not a military dictatorship, for there is dissension within the military itself, as soldiers shoot each other, sometimes out of conscience, and sometimes to get power. This chapter reminded me of different things: the utter chaos that erupts at the end of Frank Peretti’s The Visitation, as miracle workers and self-proclaimed Messiahs pop up everywhere; and the political instability that existed in Northern Israel, as one person overthrew a king, only to be overthrown himself, and so on.

Paul on Women Prophesying

For my write-up today of The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Three: The Early Roman Period, I will start by quoting something from pages 370-371, which is from William Horbury's "Women in the synagogue":

"Probably...Paul held that, 'in the assemblies' (I Cor. 14:34), women are free to pray and prophesy (I Cor. 11:5), but not to speak or to ask questions (I Cor. 14:34f)---that is...not to teach in public. This view would tally with the opinion current among Jews that women pray and hear the law, but do not teach...If, however, the passage I Cor. 14:34f is interpolated, it may have been intended to forbid women's prophecy. In either case, in early Christian worship some liberty of prophesying for women co-existed with a marked tendency towards constraint, characterized by the derivation of the subordination of women from the law (1 Cor. 14:34, I Tim. 2:11-15). Philo and Josephus similarly derive it thence, probably with Gen. 3:16 in mind."

I Corinthians 11:5 appears to imply that women in the church should pray and prophesy with their heads covered. In I Corinthians 14, however, a chapter in which Paul talks about prophesying, vv 34-35 say that women should keep silent in the church, that they should learn by asking their husbands at home rather than by speaking in church, and that women are to be obedient, according to the law (which Horbury says may be Genesis 3:16, which affirms that the man will rule over the woman). Is this a contradiction? Many argue that I Corinthians 14:34-35 is not authentically Pauline. Others, by contrast, seek to harmonize the passages. Horbury refers to the view that Paul allows women to pray and to prophesy in the assembly, but not to teach in the assembly, for Paul wants them to learn in silence. John MacArthur argues that women are permitted to prophesy to unbelievers, to women, to children, and to individuals, but not to do so in the Christian assembly. Under Rachel Held Evans' post, Complementarians are selective too, Calvinist Justin Taylor mentions the argument of Wayne Grudem and John Piper that Paul permits women to speak in the church, as long as they do not challenge or undermine the authority of men (which, according to I Corinthians 11, they were doing by not wearing a head covering). And, when John Piper was asked by a man if he was biblically allowed to listen to Christian teacher Beth Moore, Piper responded that this was fine, so long as the man did not submit to a woman as his spiritual shepherd and authority (see here).

My impression is that Horbury argues that the early church was reflecting Jewish practices on women praying and prophesying in an assembly. But, as far as I could see (at least in my reading so far), Horbury does not demonstrate that Jews permitted women to prophesy in temple or synagogue services. But, on page 379, Horbury does discuss examples of women leading song in the Jewish religion: Miriam does so (Exodus 15:20ff.), as do Deborah (Judges 4:4; 5:1) and temple choirs that include females (Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67; Psalm 68:26). In intertestamental literature, Judith leads with dance and song (Judith 15:12-16:1), and Job's daughters sang in an angelic language (Testament of Job 48-51). Could any of this count as prophesying?

(UPDATE: Here are some more quotes from Horbury's article, which shed light on the issue:

Page 389: "Hymnody verges, indeed, on prophecy, in which women spoke with authority...but prophecy is unlikely to have had a regular place in the constitution and worship of the synagogues." Page 398: "Prayer and hymnody...elements of worship in which women had some traditional prominence, are likely to have had their place in varying ways in the synagogue assembly from the Second Temple period onwards.")

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Natural Consequences and Divine Intervention

I received some online feedback regarding my post, Ideas in Christianity Putting Some People’s Minds in a Tailspin! I will do a series on that feedback, since it made me think, plus I feel that I can interact with it in more depth on my own blog, rather than in a comment. I won’t necessarily write a post for this series each and every day, but I will post fairly regularly.

My post was about how some Christians can apply certain ideas well, whereas other Christians can apply those same ideas in a manner that’s unhealthy. I stated the following:

“In the movie that I watched yesterday, Hidden Secrets (see my post here), one of the characters felt that God was punishing her because she had an abortion when she was in college. When a Christian friend tried to reassure her that the blood of Jesus could forgive any sin, she replied that God may have forgiven her, and yet God is still requiring her to undergo negative temporal consequences on account of her sin. For her, those consequences were that people she loved died. She did not refer to the story of David and Bathsheba, but I have heard Christians allude to that story to teach that, although God may forgive a sin and the sinner is saved, God may still require the sinner to endure the negative temporal consequences of that sin…Many Christians will come along and will say that what I presented in the above items is not “biblical”. But, in a sense, it is biblical…In some cases in the Hebrew Bible, God smites a person’s family members as punishment for that person’s sin. (I think of the firstborn of Egypt, and also Jeroboam’s son.)”

Here were some responses that I received to this point:

“You said: ‘I have heard Christians allude to that story to teach that, although God may forgive a sin and the sinner is saved, God may still require the sinner to endure the negative temporal consequences of that sin.’ That sounds reasonable. Consider the alternative: I get drunk, drive and hit a parked car. Should the judge just say ‘oh, you are a Christian? In that case, case dismissed’? Of course not.”

“…I think God is being blamed unfairly. Why is it God’s fault if we suffer consequences from stupid choices we make? The universe is set up to operate according to certain laws (including spiritual laws) and when we violate those laws, we often pay the consequences. I tend to think God is more involved if somehow we manage to avoid experiencing the consequences of our actions.”

I think it’s common sense that, in many cases, we reap what we sow. And my impression is that this is how most evangelicals understand the teaching that God may forgive our sins, yet permit us to suffer the consequences for our sins: they’re talking about natural consequences of bad behavior, not God intervening to punish. That woman on the movie, Hidden Secrets, was going in another direction, however, for she was saying that God was punishing her temporally because she had an abortion, by killing people who were close to her. But I cannot ascribe this view to evangelicals, for this was a woman on a movie, and the movie itself (which was Christian) was strongly indicating that her viewpoint was wrong, for God is forgiving.

But I can understand where one would get the idea that God would punish a person after forgiving him or her. As far as I can tell (and I’m open to different ideas), what David suffered at the hands of Absalom was not a natural consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah—except for Ahithophel joining Absalom’s side, of course, since Ahithophel was Bathsheba’s grandfather and was probably offended by what David did. Amnon’s rape of Tamar, Absalom’s murder of Amnon, and Absalom’s revolt were not natural effects of David’s sin. Rather, they were God intervening to punish David. Perhaps a Christian could say that God may discipline a person after forgiving him, for God wants that person to recognize the gravity of sin. But that view can be applied in an unhealthy manner, as that woman on the movie was doing when she blamed herself for the death of those she loved.

The Death Penalty

In last night’s reading of Stephen King’s The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, I read Chapters 24-25. I will talk about Chapter 24.

Chapter 24 focused on Lloyd, who shot some people at a store with his partner-in-crime, Poke, and is meeting with his court-appointed attorney (Devins) in jail to discuss what will happen to him. Lloyd is planning to shift the blame onto Poke, who died in the attempted robbery. But Devins informs Lloyd that he (Lloyd) is subject to the death penalty because he was an accomplice. And, because a court decision (Markham vs. South Carolina, which I could not find on a google search) ruled that making people on death row wait a long time for their execution was cruel and unusual punishment, Lloyd could die pretty soon. But Devins was telling Lloyd this so that Lloyd wouldn’t get cocky, for Devins had some strategy that might get Lloyd off, and he didn’t want Lloyd to look arrogant in the court room. Devins states that “In some cases, juries have let blatant murderers go just because they didn’t want blood that fresh on their hands.”

For a long time, I was the sort of person who would cheer at a politician saying that he has executed a lot of people. When I was at Harvard, watching a 2000 Presidential debate, I applauded when George W. Bush said that he supported the death penalty. A student looked back at me and said, “Psycho”.

Nowadays, I don’t wildly support the death penalty, for the death penalty can be unfairly applied, plus even criminals are human beings. I was watching the movie Hurricane last night, and I noticed prisoners’ family and friends visiting with them. Moreover, many of us wait to hear good news: did I get into that school? Did I get the job? Imagine waiting to hear if you would live or die.

At the same time, Lloyd and Poke killed people in cold blood—people who would no longer see the people who cared about them, nor have a chance to pursue their dreams. I can somewhat sympathize with something that Duncan Hunter said in a G.O.P. Presidential debate in 2008: that he believes a person about to commit a murder should—somewhere in his mind—consider the possibility that he could be jeopardizing his own life through such an act.

ADDENDUM: I think the execution of an innocent person is tragic and reprehensible. I just want to make that clear.

Bible Study Week 1: Atonement, Alienating Attitudes

I went to the first session of my church’s Bible study tonight. We’re going through Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, which concerns Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son.

I said here and here that I was looking forward to this Bible study because it would focus on spirituality rather than doctrine. But what I should have remembered was that Tim Keller always ties what he’s saying to Christ and him crucified. In the DVD that we watched this evening, for instance, Tim Keller said that the father of the story gave his son his inheritance at cost to himself, for the father had to sell part of his own property—a piece of himself—in order to give his son the money. Tim Keller also said that, in those days, the elder brother was responsible for the family’s estate, and so the elder brother was responsible to look for the younger son at cost to himself in order to return him to the family. According to Tim Keller, the elder brother does not do what he’s expected to do in Jesus’ parable because Jesus wants for us to long for the true elder brother, Jesus Christ, who went to great lengths to get us back.

The cross of Christ is important to Tim Keller, for it was through the cross that God showed he would love us at great cost to himself. This stood out to me this evening because, earlier today, an evangelical friend of mine told me that I don’t believe in the atonement, and that the cross is central to Christianity. I suppose that I have had a John Hick picture of God these past couple of years—a God who is benevolent and who reveals himself (in some manner) to people of different religions. Christianity strikes me as exclusive, and the corollary of “Christ died for our sins” often, for me, means that those who don’t accept Christ’s sacrifice will go to hell. And yet, Christianity does have a God who loved at great cost to himself, and that does look better than my nebulous conception of God. Tim Keller is far from being a universalist, but I do know Christian universalists who somehow try to combine the best of both worlds: the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, and God’s presence in the lives of every one on the face of the earth, whatever that person believes. (There are other kinds of Christian universalists as well.)

What also stood out to me in today’s session was Tim Keller’s discussion of alienation from God. The younger son did not want to be with his father, but he simply wanted his father’s money so he could go off and make a life for himself. The older son, however, did not care about the heart of his father, for he did not care about his father’s happiness at his little brother’s return. Rather, the older brother was more concerned about how the father was spending lots of money for the feast in honor of the younger son, and how the father did not appear to honor his older son’s obedience to the rules. Both attitudes alienate people from God. Tim Keller believes that Jesus paid the price for our sins, and that this reconciles believers to God, but (as far as I could tell) his focus in the sermon that I heard was not so much on Christ’s role in a judicial transaction, but rather on how our attitudes can alienate us from God.

In the question about which brother we identify with, the older or the younger, my response (after hearing Tim Keller) was both. Like the younger brother, I want to find myself—to make my own rules—since God’s rules appear daunting to me (i.e., don’t lust after women, etc.). But, like the older brother, I think that I deserve God’s favor and the good afterlife because I go to church, read daily devotionals, do my weekly quiet time, give some to the poor, etc. I think that I know how to correct the latter attitude: to tell myself that God loves me whether I do those things or not. But I’m not sure how to correct the former attitude, for I want God to love me, even as I hold on to things (i.e., lust) that Christianity would consider a sin. I don’t believe that utterly getting rid of sexual desire is realistic. But I do think that I should try to see sex as God views it—as an expression of love—especially if part of intimacy with God is sharing his heart on things.

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