Friday, November 30, 2012

John 21: Jesus Encourages (Not Rebukes) Peter

Last night was the last meeting of my church's Bible study group, for the time being.  We finished A Fragile Stone, Peter: Jesus' Friend, with Michael Card

I have two thoughts:

1.  In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him.  When Peter replies in the affirmative, Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep.  Michael Card does not believe that Jesus in this passage was rebuking Peter for having denied Jesus three times.  Card argues that Jesus had already dealt with Peter's denial in a previous post-resurrection appearance.  One reason that Card thinks this is that Luke 24:34 and I Corinthians 15:5 present a special appearance by Jesus to Peter, which occurred soon after Jesus' resurrection.  For Card, Jesus at that time addressed Peter's denials, presumably by reassuring and forgiving Peter, and this occurred before the events of John 21.  Second, Peter in John 21 rushes from his boat when he sees that Jesus is ashore, and Card seems to doubt that Peter would have been that enthusiastic to meet Jesus if Peter still felt ashamed on account of having denied Jesus three times.  In Card's opinion, Peter's bad feelings about having betrayed Jesus had been dealt with in an earlier encounter Peter had with the risen Christ.

At the same time, Card still appears to maintain that Peter had some lingering bad feelings, which was why Christ was encouraging Peter in John 21.  What I got out of the study was that Jesus was giving Peter a pep-talk, if you will.  "Do you love me?  Yes?  Then go forward and feed my sheep!" (my paraphrase).  Peter thought that he had let Jesus down and thus was hesitant to proceed with the work that God wanted him to do, and so Jesus was encouraging Peter to feed his sheep, while giving Peter an opportunity to affirm his own love for Jesus.

I myself think that John 21 had something to do with Peter's three-fold denial of Jesus.  I'm rather hesitant to juxtapose John, Luke, and I Corinthians and to conclude that there was an appearance by Jesus to Peter prior to the events of John 21 (and yet, John 21:14 says that the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples two times before), but, putting that aside, it seems to me that Jesus in John 21 is recalling Peter's denials: there is the fire of coals in John 21:9, which may recall the fire of coals on which Peter was warming himself around the time that he denied Jesus (John 18:18); Jesus asked Peter three times in John 21 if Peter loved him, and Peter denied Jesus three times (John 13:38).  But I don't think that Jesus in John 21 was rebuking Peter or rubbing Peter's denial in Peter's face.  Rather, in my opinion, the goal was encouragement.

I recall a sermon in which someone said that Jesus in John 21 was turning Peter's bad memory into a good memory.  Peter had a bad memory----he had denied Jesus three times.  Peter would probably look at a fire of coals and think back to the night that he denied Jesus.  But Jesus in John 21 was taking elements of that bad memory----the fire of coals, the number three----and was using them in a setting in which Jesus showed Peter grace and gave him a commission.  Things that were associated with Peter's disgrace became associated with Peter's redemption and commission by God.  Even if Peter and Jesus had talked about Peter's denial prior to John 21, Peter was probably still unsettled about having denied Jesus, and so he needed that extra encouragement from Jesus.

2.  I appreciated some things that a lady in the group said about the Bible.  One of the questions was whether Jesus in John 21 was rebuking Peter for the denials or was encouraging Peter, and the lady responded that the aim of the Bible is to encourage.  She also said that, if we were perfect, then we wouldn't need the Bible.  I myself can think of plenty of things in the Bible that discourage me.  And yet, I agree with the lady in the group that the very existence of the Bible----and I'd add any wisdom in the world----attests to our imperfection and need for guidance.  That being the case, I don't feel as bad about being imperfect! 

Next week, I'll talk about the group's discussion about what we will study next!

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 6

For my write-up today on Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, I'll start with something that Gore says on page 179:

" and women who care must be politically empowered to demand and help effect remedies to ecological problems wherever they live.  As the dramatic environmental problems in Eastern Europe show, freedom is a necessary condition for an effective stewardship of the environment.  Here in the United States, a hugely disproportionate number of the worst hazardous waste sites are in poor and minority communities that have relatively little political power because of race or poverty or both.  Indeed, almost wherever people at the grass-roots level are deprived of a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, they and the environment suffer.  I have therefore come to believe that an essential prerequisite for saving the environment is the spread of democratic government to more nations of the world."

A while back, I wrote a post about Newt Gingrich's argument that capitalism is better for the environment than socialism and communism.  I've heard a similar argument from other right-wingers: "Oh, so capitalism is bad for the environment, huh?", the argument runs.  "What about the damage that was done to the environment in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?  Chernobyl, anyone?  And how about China's pollution of the environment?"

I disagree with this argument if it's point is that a laissez-faire economy is best for the environment.  In my opinion, it would be comparing apples and oranges to liken the government imposing environmental regulations to the sort of system that Communist countries had or have.  Communist countries were collectivist, but my impression is that they were willing to disregard the environment when they felt that doing so would increase productivity.  Saying that Communist countries have hurt the environment does not mean that laissez-faire capitalism is right.

At the same time, I do think that capitalism can generate the wealth and productivity that are necessary for cleaner technology to be developed, and for companies to be able to financially bear environmental regulations.  And please keep in mind that many countries that have been called socialistic----such as certain nations in Western Europe and Scandinavia----actually have a solid capitalistic element.

I also think that Gore does well to point out that democracy can be conducive to good environmental stewardship.  In a democracy, if I don't like for my neck of the woods to be polluted, I can make my will known on this and perhaps effect change.  My understanding is that, in a number of Communist countries, people had no say about what their government did, and so they couldn't do much if the government contributed to the pollution of where they lived.  And yet, democracy may not be fool-proof, for polluters are also part of a democracy, and they have a significant amount of power and influence on the government.  And even everyday people may not like rigorous action on the environment, fearing that this could cost them their jobs.  Moreover, even in our democracy, there are people who lack power, and their neighborhoods especially suffer environmental degradation, as Gore notes.  That needs to be taken into consideration, and somehow rectified.

Did Jonathan Edwards Have Asperger's?

In my latest reading of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I wondered if Jonathan Edwards had Asperger's Syndrome.  Marsden does not speculate about this issue, but, as a person with Asperger's who has read some about the condition, I could identify with Edwards as Marsden was describing him.

Edwards essentially studied all day.  A lot of this took place in his personal study, but he also took solitary walks in nature.  And he was rather eccentric: whenever he had a thought while he was on one of his nature walks, he would pin a piece of paper to a specific part of his clothes, and he would associate that with his thought.  Then, when he got home, he would write the thought down.  In some cases, his clothes would be covered with a lot of these small pieces of paper.  Marsden wryly states that, for Edwards, "Fashionable appearance apparently was not a high priority" (page 136).

According to Marsden, Edwards did not make a lot of pastoral calls, for he was not adept at small talk and often was not in the mood to socialize, plus he wanted to devote more time to his studying and writing.  Edwards did, however, talk with parishioners in his study if they needed counsel.  Edwards also did not like to be distracted with the details of running his estate, and he left that job to his wife and servants.

Edwards was still able to make contacts, however.  Some of that appears to be because he had prominent relatives.  Edwards also impressed people, as when he gave a sermon defending human dependence on God against Arminianism (the view that people contribute something to their own salvation), which got some people's attention and was published.  And Edwards could find common cause with notable people who, like Edwards, sought to defend Calvinism in a logical manner.

Maybe Edwards had Asperger's.  Maybe he was simply an introvert, and one should remember that not all introverts have Asperger's.  But I could still identify with Edwards.  I myself would love to have a job where I am paid to study all day.  I am not good at small talk, and there are many times when I'm not in the mood to socialize (though socializing can be fun).  I don't like to be distracted by the details of everyday life----if I had a wife, I would probably let her handle the finances.  I used to enjoy taking long walks in solitude.  I try not to be unfashionable in how I dress, but fashion is not something I obsess over.  And, while I struggle to make contacts----even with people who share interests with me----it's a little easier for me to form contacts with people when I can find a common cause or interest with them (but that may be true of everyone).

What's interesting is that Edwards, in his solitude and introversion, could arrive at nuggets of wisdom that he could share with his congregation.  For example, Edwards preached a sermon about how God's people in the Bible often go through hard times before God delivers them, and, according to Edwards, that was to teach them to depend on God.  Have I, in my introversion, arrived at nuggets of wisdom?  Well, yes and no.  I feel that I can gain wisdom through interaction with people----wisdom about the things that I can do and say to make contacts, to get a job, to keep a job, etc.  But there is also something to be said for thinking deeply in solitude.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 5: Trade-Offs

For my write-up today on Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, my main theme will be trade-offs.

On pages 137-138, Gore discusses the Third World.  Gore says that there are impoverished Third World countries that are seeking to finance their debts through selling exports, by taking the land that they used for subsistence farming and using it to produce "monocultured hybrid crop varieties" that they then sell abroad.  Gore acknowledges that this approach has "temporarily conquered hunger in a few of the Third World nations", but he does not believe that it addresses the problem of the "wealthy elite" owning "a huge percentage of the productive land."  Moreover, Gore says that the "higher yields" of crops "often cannot be sustained over time", for "pests and blights catch up with" the crops and "overirrigation and overfertilizing take their toll on soil productivity."  Gore also critiques development programs that are funded by "international financial institutions" because he believes that "in too many cases they turn out to be wildly inappropriate for the culture or ecology of the region in which they are placed."

On page 141, Gore talks about trade-offs in terms of pesticides.  Pesticides kill pests that are harmful, but also helpful pests.  Gore refers to a story that was told by environmentalist Amory Lovins about how a pesticide in Indonesia that was used to kill malaria-spreading mosquitoes also ended up killing wasps that "controlled the insect population in the thatched roofs of the houses", with the result that "the roofs all fell in" (Gore's words).  The pesticide also poisoned a number of cats, which resulted in an increase in the rat population and a bubonic plague epidemic.

What could be done instead?  Would debt forgiveness of Third World nations help the situation?  How about supporting Third World leaders who would redistribute the land and allow it to be used for subsistence farming?  Would a land Sabbath allow the soil to rest?  And how would one solve the problem of malaria?  Would using a less-powerful pesticide do the job?  Some of what I have just listed have their own weaknesses: they result in less productivity and wealth for the nation.  But would that matter, if people are able to support themselves by growing their own crops?

Are there perfect----or, if we can't aim that high, better----solutions?

(UPDATE: On page 322, Gore talks about such things as increasing "the productivity of small farms with low input agricultural methods", environmentally-friendlier technology, and crop rotation.)

Edwards: Heaven as a Place of Growth

For my write-up today on George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life, I'll use as my starting point something that Marsden says on page 109:

"In one notable entry, [Jonathan Edwards] again placed his longing for Sarah in its larger spiritual context: 'Happiness.  How soon do earthly lovers come to an end of their discoveries of each other's beauty; how soon do they see all that is to be seen!...How soon do they come to the most endearing expressions of love that 'tis possible to give, so that no new ways can be invented[,] given or received.'  Once again, he contrasted the easily reached limits of human love with the infinitely progressing heavenly love between Christ and the saints: 'And how happy is that love, in which there is an eternal progress in all these things; wherein new beauties are continually discovered, and more and more loveliness, and in which we shall forever increase in beauty ourselves; where we shall be made capable of finding out and giving, and shall receive, more and more endearing expressions of love forever: our union will become more close, and communion more intimate.'"

For Edwards, heaven will not be a boring place, for we will grow in our love for Christ, as we gain more and more insight into Christ's character and become increasingly beautiful ourselves.
This brings several things to my mind.

First, this somewhat contradicts something that I heard about Jonathan Edwards in a class that I took years ago.  We were discussing Edwards' sermon, Heaven, A World of Love, and my professor (if I recall correctly) thought that Edwards was presenting heaven as a static place, whereas he preferred to conceive of heaven as a place where people grow and mature in love.  But the passage from Edwards that Marsden highlights appears to present heaven as a dynamic place.

Second, a problem that I have long had with I Corinthians 13 is its claim that knowledge will pass away----since there will come a time when we will no longer look through a glass darkly but will know God as God knows us----and yet love will remain forever.  I appreciate the point that the chapter is trying to make----that we should not feel superior on account of our knowledge or use our knowledge as a way to put people down, but we should be humble, meek, and loving.  But I would never like to get to the point where I am no longer growing in knowledge.  That's what makes life exciting: learning new things.  And, as one gets older in this life, one realizes that there is only so much that one can learn in a limited lifespan.  But, according to Edwards, heaven is a place where we will continually learn about Christ.  And that growth in knowledge is not contrary to love, but actually encourages it.

Third, in my younger years, one problem that I had with the Bible and Christianity is that I became bored with them.  I thought that I already knew all of the doctrines that there are to know, and I wanted to hear something new.  In my later years (if you want to count my 30's as "later"), I realize that there is much that I don't know.  There are so many different doctrines out there, and so many interpretations of the Bible, that I can spend a lifetime learning about them, and even one lifetime will not be enough time!  The thing is, what I learn about the Bible from the historical-critical method is not always inspiring or edifying, but I don't want to continually fall back on old cliches, such as "God is love".  But suppose I were to learn that God is love, and see that there are endless things to uncover even from that?  Suppose that I can be edified, and learn more and more.

Fourth, I thought about the limitations that are on earth.  I don't entirely agree with Edwards that we can soon see everything that there is to see in our lover, for there may be new things to learn when it comes to other people, even after a long period of time.  At the same time, there are times when people get bored with their spouse or significant other, which is why they may look elsewhere, or the spouse or significant other may try something new to spice up the relationship.  One thing that Edwards does not mention in the passage that Marsden quotes is that familiarity can breed contempt: that seeing things I don't like in another person can set limits on my love.  And then there are hang-ups that we have that inhibit the full expression of our love, as I talk about here.  But suppose we were in a place where such limitations did not exist----where we could grow in love and express more fully the love that we have.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What It Is Like to Go to War

I watched a good episode of Bill Moyers' program last Sunday, after I came home from church.  In it, Bill Moyers talks with Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, who is the author of the book What It Is Like to Go to War.  Karl talked about such issues as the challenge the military faces of turning people who have been taught by their culture not to kill into killing machines; how young people, the ones who go to war, are more pliable than people in their thirties; the discouragement that people coming home from war experience when they feel that nobody cares about what they just went through; and how applauding returning soldiers like we're at a football game is not the appropriate response to their service, and what we should do instead to honor them.

It's a thoughtful discussion, and I don't think that I'll see Veterans Day and Memorial Day the same after watching it.  I don't always buy into the propaganda that soldiers overseas are fighting for our freedoms, for I am skeptical that some wars that we've fought have anything to do with our freedoms.  But I think that it's important to care about people's pain.

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 4: Clouds

A few posts ago, in writing about Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, I mentioned Al Gore's reference to an argument that the greenhouse effect could actually lead to cooling, since it would result in more clouds.  Gore also referred to climate-change skeptic Richard Lindzen, who teaches at MIT.  In my latest reading, on page 90, Gore interacts more with the clouds argument:

"...speculation that the cloud system might somehow cancel the effects of all the extra greenhouse gases has not withstood analysis.  It is true that the water vapor in clouds both contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing radiant energy and plays a cooling role by scattering light, in part back to space; as a result, any change in the number and distribution of clouds would have a big impact.  But the evidence to date strongly points to the conclusion that water vapor seems, unfortunately, to amplify the warming trend as it traps even more infrared heat that might otherwise escape from the atmosphere.  Though there is more uncertainty where clouds themselves are concerned, most water vapor is outside clouds, and clouds too may magnify the warming rather than lessen it.  Indeed, the leading proponent of the idea that water vapor serves as a cooling thermostat, Richard Lindzen, publicly withdrew his hypothesis on how that might happen in 1991."

I found this interesting because Gore argues that, while clouds have a cooling effect, they can also have a warming effect.  I guess that the question is which is greater, the warming or the cooling effect.

If People Can't Help What They Believe...

My latest reading of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life covered a variety of topics: the growing influence of Anglicanism in early eighteenth New England, which concerned a number of Puritans; Jonathan Edwards' prophetic speculation, as he calculated that Christ would return in 1866 (1260 years after the start of the papacy, which Edwards dated to 606 C.E.) and viewed himself as one of those who would bring people to Christ in the latter days, through logical argumentation; Edwards' admiration for his future wife, Sarah, on account of her joy (an attribute he himself desired) and her enjoyment of God in solitude (something that he himself experienced); and how Jonathan Edwards----an educated man----could bring his sermons down to earth for his congregation by means of effective analogies.

There was a period of time when Edwards' sermons were rather positive, and that was when Edwards was seeking to encourage himself as he was struggling with negative thinking.  Edwards also had experience in trying to suppress resentment, and that was manifest in some of his sermons, which sought to teach people how to have a loving and forgiving attitude.  Edwards urged people to hate the sin but love the sinner, and even to live at peace with those who had different religious beliefs, for, as Edwards said, people can't help what they believe (page 97----in case you're interested in seeing Marsden's discussion and in tracking down his reference).  That's actually a provocative statement, and it inspires me to ask: Why does God judge those who don't believe in Christ, if they can't help what they believe?  And, if we should cut people some slack because they can't help what they believe, why doesn't God do the same?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 3

In my latest reading of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, Al Gore talks about the dramatic effects of shifts in climate throughout history, as they led to such things as famines, migrations, plagues, and competition for resources.  In some cases, Gore notes, volcanoes caused these climate shifts.  On page 73, Gore states his point behind giving us this history lesson: "All of these changes in climate patterns took place during temperature variations of only 1 to 2 degrees Centigrade.  Yet today, at the close of the twentieth century, we are in the process of altering global temperatures by up to three to four times that amount and causing changes in climate patterns that are likely to have enormous impacts on global civilization."  Such consequences would include migrations----as the rising sea level would displace some people and soil erosion would render subsistence farming impossible in certain locations----and the political conflicts that could result from that.  Moreover, the hole in the ozone layer makes people less resistant to disease in certain areas, and "populations of pests, germs, and viruses migrate with the changing climate patterns" (pages 74-75).

The reason that this discussion stood out to me was on account of right-wing arguments that I have heard about climate change: that the climate has historically gone through cycles that had little to do with human activity, that natural things such as volcanoes pump a lot of pollution into the air, and that the global temperature has only gone up a few degrees.  Gore acknowledges that there have been climate fluctuations throughout history, that volcanoes have sometimes contributed to that, and that there have been times when the temperature has only gone up by a few degrees.  But, for him, that is not inconsistent with human activity contributing to climate change, and climate change (even by a few degrees) having disastrous effects.

Edwards, Locke, and the Relationship of God to Nature

The inside flaps of the cover to George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life states: "Marsden reveals Edwards as a complex thinker and human being who struggled to reconcile his Puritan heritage with the secular, modern world emerging out of the Enlightenment."  My latest reading exemplified this thesis, and I'm sure that was not the last time that this thesis will emerge in this book.

In my latest reading, two issues that I came across were Edwards' reading of John Locke, and Edwards' attempts to define the relationship of God to the natural world.  Regarding Locke, Edwards eventually departed from Locke's critique of the doctrine of predestination, even though Edwards himself initially struggled with that doctrine.  The doctrine just made sense to Edwards at some point, and he no longer wrestled with it.

On the relationship of God with the natural world, Edwards viewed the natural world as an expression of God to human beings----to draw from the Psalmist, the heavens declare the glory of God.  Edwards was not a deist, one who believed that God created the cosmos and then ceased to be involved in it, for Edwards held that God was active in the world and was sustaining it on a continual basis.  But Edwards also shied away from Puritan superstition----by which I mean an obsession with demons and witches, and stories such as that about a man who grew a goat's horn after stealing a goat.  There was a spectrum around Edwards' time: Isaac Newton, for example, had a worldview that deists would run with, one that was deemed to be mechanistic, and yet Newton believed that God was directly behind gravity----not just in the sense that God created gravity a long time ago, but rather in the sense that God was behind it on a continual basis.  Moreover, there were some who maintained that the universe was in the mind of God.

According to Edwards, when one was spiritually illuminated, one could see how the universe fit together and communicated God's glory and wisdom, as well as Christ's love.  Personally, I think that the universe is rather discordant, and that many Christians read into it what they want to find, using mental gymnastics when necessary.  I much prefer the approach of God in God's speeches to Job to Christian attempts to force harmonization on what does not appear to be harmonious----the world is a strange and mysterious place.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Larry Hagman

As many of you know, actor Larry Hagman has passed on.  Hagman is best known for his roles in I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas.

I wasn't allowed to watch Dallas when I was a kid, but I occasionally got to sneak in an episode!  One baby sitter allowed me to stay up late to watch part of Dallas.  And, when my family traveled for the Feast of Tabernacles, we all ended up sharing a motel room, and I'd get to watch Dallas and Falcon Crest because, well, my parents didn't want to miss them!

I was allowed to watch I Dream of Jeannie, however.  It was on in syndication during the afternoons.  I liked the music that played whenever Dr. Bellows was baffled!  Also, Major Nelson shouting "Jeannie!" whenever Jeannie had placed him in a precarious situation was classic.

I got to watch Dallas with my family when I was in college, when it was playing in syndication on a country music cable station.  I loved J.R.  My favorite line of his was whenever he said "Is that a fact?" after someone had informed him of certain developments that he had caused, but that he didn't want people to know that he caused.  I liked the affable, charming, and yet ironic tone in J.R.'s voice whenever he said that.

And, believe it or not, J.R. could have a sense of integrity.  I remember one episode of Dallas in which a blue-collar worker came into J.R.'s office and informed him of something.  For one, I liked the fact that J.R. asked a complete stranger coming into his office "What can I do for you?"  I doubt that you see that kind of openness among most rushed, busy CEOs!  But, second, I liked J.R.'s response after the guy shared with J.R. the information that he came to share, which would be to J.R.'s benefit.  "Man, I'm going to make it worth your while for coming to me first!"  J.R. had the integrity to reward those who helped him out!

R.I.P., Larry Hagman!

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 2

In my latest reading of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (copyright 1992, 1993), Al Gore talks about climate change skeptics.

Gore acknowledges that there are scientists who are skeptical about climate change----he mentions Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT.  Moreover, on pages 36-37, Gore refers to certain arguments that are advanced by a few scientists that climate change is no cause for alarm: that greenhouse gasses trapping heat in the atmosphere results in the production of more clouds, which help to regulate "the earth's temperature"; and that "we don't have to worry about climate change causing widespread droughts in the middle of continental landmasses because the faster evaporation of moisture from the soil in a warmer atmosphere will be offset by changes in rainfall patterns."

Gore is all for seeking answers to questions to alleviate uncertainty, as well as debate.  But he expresses what his problem is on pages 38-39: "In this case, when 98 percent of the scientists in a given field share one view and 2 percent disagree, both viewpoints are sometimes presented in a format in which each appears equally credible."  As a result, according to Gore, there is a reluctance to take the difficult yet necessary steps to address the problem of climate change.  Meanwhile, there are special interests that are quite satisfied with the status quo.

Not long after Gore makes this statement about scientific consensus, Gore refers to times in which widespread scientific agreement has been wrong: on continental shift not having occurred, for example.  I was not entirely clear on what his point was there.  But I can see his larger point about climate change skepticism.  There are plenty of debates that may not make that much of a difference----even if we get something wrong, we can come back later and get things right.  In the case of climate change, however, suppose that those who believe that it exists and is caused by humans are right.  If we do nothing to address the problem, there may come a point when it can no longer be addressed, with disastrous results for nature and human beings.

But skeptics about climate change can come back and say that we can't impose regulations that will damage the economy over a speculative doomsday scenario.  I think that's why Gore's arguments that you don't have to choose between the environment and the economy are so important.

Jonathan Edwards' Spiritual Experience; Holding Two Models Simultaneously

I started George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  I'll be going through this book rather slowly, and my blogging through it will be off-and-on, which means that I may not blog about it every day.  But I will be reading and blogging through it, for so far it's a good book.

One issue that stood out to me in my latest reading was Jonathan Edwards' spiritual development when he was young.  There came a point when Jonathan was walking in the woods and had an ecstatic recognition of Christ's beauty and love.  Prior to that point, however, Jonathan really struggled as he sought salvation.  There were times when he was interested in spiritual things, and he was excited at a revival at his father Timothy's church (where Timothy was the pastor).  But then Jonathan's spiritual interest petered out.  Jonathan also struggled with relationships, for, even though he impressed adults with his learning, he tended to alienate his peer-group with his shyness and his seriousness.  Jonathan also struggled with sexual lust.  And, while Jonathan did desire God, he thought that the doctrine of predestination portrayed God as a monster, and he also did not care for his father's discipline.

After Jonathan was awakened to the beauty of Christ, his spiritual interest became more sustained.  Yet, even during some of the time that he was a pastor, he still struggled.  He kept extensive notes about his spiritual condition each day, as he noted times when he was irritable or lacked spiritual passion.  He sought to retain his spirituality through regular spiritual disciplines, which often helped him to arrive at a state of equilibrium.  Moreover, he tried to get along with his parents, even though Marsden narrates that Jonathan's father did not think that Jonathan's conversion was quite good enough (though, ironically, at that time, Timothy wanted Jonathan to pastor a certain church).  Later in life, Jonathan looked back on his years as a younger Christian and reflected that he was relying on himself more than the Holy Spirit.  And, while Edwards' spirituality can easily strike one as overly introspective, he did write a best-selling biography of David Brainerd, which "encouraged countless Christian to seek lives of disinterested sacrifice and missionary service" (page 2).

I identified with many aspects of Edwards' spiritual journey: his search for a consistent spiritual high (if you will), his excitement at people becoming closer to God, and his struggles with himself and others, as well as with certain religious doctrines.

Another issue that stood out to me was how Puritans sought to apply the Old and New Testaments.  The Old Testament presents membership in God's people as something that Israelites are born into----which circumcision marks.  In short, the children of someone who is in God's covenant are themselves part of that covenant.  But the New Testament, in contrast, seems to hold in a number of places that faith is how one becomes part of God's people.  There were Puritans who tried to have it both ways: to uphold the covenant as something into which one was born, but also as something that one entered through a conversion experience.  But suppose we had an infant from Christian parents who entered the community of faith through his baptism, yet he grew up and did not have an acceptable conversion experience?  Should his children be baptized, since the infant children of covenant members were the ones who were to receive baptism, and this guy was halfway in the covenant (due to his birth to Christian parents and his baptism as an infant) and halfway out (since he did not have a conversion experience)?

Roger Williams, if I'm understanding Marsden's discussion correctly, did not treat the church as a Christian nation into which people are born.  Moreover, unlike many Puritans, Williams did not think that God dealt with nations as God did in the Old Testament----judging them according to their obedience or disobedience to certain laws.  Rather, for Williams, the New Testament communicated how God dealt with people in this day and age----people entered the church by faith.  But there were many Puritans who sought to retain an Old Testament model and a New Testament model simultaneously.

Jonathan Edwards grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, argued against the requirement that a person have a demonstrable conversion experience to become a church member.  For Stoddard, even if a person claimed Christ but was not truly converted, his participation in the sacraments might lead him to become a Christian.  Stoddard's open-model was rather controversial.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jester Hairston, Amen

At church this morning, the pastor in his sermon was talking about the 1963 movie Lillies of the Field, in which Sidney Poitier played a handyman who built a church for a group of East German nuns.  (According to wikipedia, Poitier won a 1963 Academy Award for that role, and that was "the first time a black man won a competitive Oscar.")

The pastor mentioned a song in the movie, "Amen", which Poitier's character sings.  See here.  But, actually, Poitier does not sing the song, for he was tone-deaf, and it was sung instead by the one who wrote the song, Jester Hairston.  Hairston's singing was dubbed into the movie. 

The name "Jester Hairston" sounded familiar to me.  I only knew of one person who had the first name of "Jester", and it was the guy who played the sharp-witted old man Rolly in the series Amen, which ran from 1986-1991 and starred Sherman Hemsley.  But I could not remember the actor's last name.  It turned out that the guy who played Rolly indeed was Jester Hairston, the author of the song "Amen"!  See here.
Also, see here for some YouTube Rolly scenes.

Al Gore's Earth in the Balance 1

I started Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (copyright 1992, 1993).  I have two items from my latest reading.

1.  Gore discusses his 1988 Presidential run, during which time he talked a lot about environmental issues, back when many people in the U.S. did not exactly prioritize them.  After Gore lost the Democratic nomination and George H.W. Bush became President (and Bush pledged to be a leader on climate change, but this, according to Gore, turned out to be an "empty promise"), Gore plotted a strategy on how he could be a leader on environmental issues in the Senate.  Gore met with Senator Tim Wirth, who was saying many of the same things that Gore was, so that both would not get in each other's way and end up sacrificing the cause to "destructive forms of competition" (page 10).  Gore says on page 10, "It was the kind of conversation I probably wouldn't have been comfortable having only a few years earlier, but by then it seemed entirely natural."  I liked this statement because it highlights an important element of growth: becoming comfortable or adept in doing things that, before, you were not comfortable or adept in doing.

2.  On page 28, Gore addresses the question of why so many could care when a little girl named Jessica McClure fell into a well and was rescued, when a lot of people in the U.S. are apathetic about the over 100,000 children who die of starvation and diarrhea, due to crop failures and politics.  Gore's answer is that people don't know what they can do about the latter, or they deem a response to the latter to be impossible or to demand too great of a sacrifice, and so they "sever the link between stimulus and moral response."
Some problems do look too big to handle.  At the same time, it is remarkable what a number of charities are doing in the Third World: bringing clean water to areas, constructing schools, etc.  Do they eliminate all of the problems in the Third World?  No.  But at least there are a lot of people there who are getting help.

Does Gore believe that there are manageable solutions to climate change?  I'm not sure what he thinks today, to tell you the truth, now that we are twenty years after he wrote this book, and twelve years after his 2000 Presidential run.  I remember talking with my Mom about Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and the solutions that he proposed to climate change----including the things that we as individuals could do----struck me as manageable.  (I have not yet watched the movie, so I'm basing this on my conversation with my Mom, who did watch it.)  And Gore in this book does not believe that we have to choose between the environment and the economy, for developing clean environmental technology creates jobs and saves companies money, especially since environmental damage can be quite costly.

Gore has often been criticized for being a hypocrite when it comes to the environment----that he flies a polluting private jet rather than more environmentally-friendly planes, that his house is not as environmentally-friendly as George W. Bush's house, etc.  Gore does not respond to those specific charges in this book, for it was written before all of that.  And yet, Gore in this book does recognize his own hypocrisy.  On pages 14-15, he says: "I have tried to confront in my own life the same ill habits of thought and action that I am attempting to understand and working to change in our civilization as a whole.  On a personal level, this has meant reexamining my relationship to the environment in large and small ways----everything from wondering how my spiritual life can be more connected to the natural world to keeping a careful eye on our household's use of electricity, water, and, indeed, every kind of resource----and recognizing my own hypocrisy when I use CFCs in my automobile air conditioner, for example, on the way to a speech about why they should be banned."  I guess what he's saying is that life is a journey, and nobody's perfect, but hopefully we can do some self-evaluation and make improvements.  I doubt that I live an environmentally-perfect life, either.  But it's good to reflect on the issue.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 9

I finished Kristin Luker's 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.

In my latest reading, Luker discussed a variety of issues.  She detailed her methodology, as she specified what criteria she used in selecting the pro-life and pro-choice activists to interview.  Pro-choicers were required to spend less time on their cause than pro-lifers to qualify for participation in her interviews because many pro-choice women did not have as much time to devote to their cause as pro-lifers, since pro-choice women were busy at their professions.  Moreover, pro-lifers were more passionate about their cause because they were seeking to change the status quo, whereas pro-choicers felt that they had already attained a significant victory in Roe vs. Wade.  Luker said, however, that pro-choicers were becoming a little more passionate, on account of the United States having an anti-abortion President at the time, namely, Ronald Reagan.  I'd say that pro-choicers were also passionate in 2012, on account of Republican politicians' comments and proposed legislation about abortion.

I was disappointed that Luker did not talk much about the role of evangelicals in the pro-life movement, and how abortion became an issue of the religious right.  But, the way Luker told it, Catholicism has played a significant role in the pro-life movement.  In its early days, it was largely Catholic.  And even later, there were a number of people in the pro-life movement who were converts to Catholicism.  Catholicism should not be downplayed when it comes to the pro-life movement, but I think that the evangelical presence in it should also be extensively discussed.

Another point that Luker made was that many women who choose abortion do not make their decision lightly.  I think that even pro-lifers should recognize this, because that would sensitize them more to the need to help the women who are considering abortion, so that the women could have their babies without great cost to themselves.  I applaud pro-lifers who actually do reach out to the women who are struggling with the implications of having the baby.

I thought that Luker's comments on pages 242-243 were especially noteworthy.  She's discussing what would happen if pro-lifers succeeded in banning most abortions, which she thinks could very well happen on account of pro-lifers' passionate commitment to their cause:

"In a Prohibition-type situation, abortions would be nominally illegal, but those with the right combination of money and information would be able to get them.  (And the combination would be important: a rich person in the heartland of Iowa would probably have a harder time than a middle-income person in New York with feminist connections.)  Well-to-do people in general would get better abortions, and the poor would get worse ones.  Every physician would have to interpret the law individually, and great variation would result.  States like California would almost surely be liberal in interpreting the new law, and states like Mississippi almost surely would not.  Occasionally, some hapless woman and her partner at the wrong place and the wrong time would be caught, tried, and given the maximum allowable sentence as a way of maintaining boundaries.  Such cases would make the national headlines.  After several years of this, public opposition to the law would increase to massive proportions, and the law would be repealed."

I've heard or had conversations with pro-choicers who believe that a law against abortion would be unfeasible.  They don't think that such a law would stop abortion because unexpected pregnancies and the cost of bringing new children into the world would continue to exist.  Plus, they ask what the penalty for abortion would be.  If the embryo is a person, should there be a death penalty for those who take its life?  My impression is that many pro-lifers don't go that far.  I can sympathize with pro-lifers who want the government to make a statement that life is sacred, for, if one human life is not considered sacred, what assurance do we have that another human life would be valued?  But, even if abortion were outlawed, problems would still exist.

Psalm 104

For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied Psalm 104.  Psalm 104 exalts God as creator, as it describes the natural world and its benefits for animals and for human beings.  Psalm 104 closes by saying (and I draw here from the King James Version): "Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD."

I have three items:

1.  One issue that came up in my reading was environmentalism.  On the one hand, some regarded Psalm 104 as a Psalm that supports environmentalist ideas in that it values, not just human beings, but plants and animals as well.  Richard Whitekettle of Calvin College had an insightful article in the Bulletin for Biblical Research (21, no. 2, 2011), in which he said that the Israelites believed that animals had rationality and intelligence, albeit on a "lesser level or quality" than what human beings possess (an issue that is discussed today).  On the other hand, there were people who used Psalm 104 against environmentalism, as they maintained that Psalm 104 presents God sustaining the earth, implying (for them) that it cannot be significantly damaged by humans.

I've long been struck by how there is an overlap between environmentalism and arguments for Intelligent Design.  Don't get me wrong----you probably won't see the two in the same camp all that often (though, here, I cannot be overly dogmatic)----but I'm saying that they sometimes present similar arguments.  Proponents for Intelligent Design often contend that (in a number of areas) the cosmos had to be created exactly as it was for there to be life----that if certain factors had varied even slightly, an inhabitable universe would not exist.  Environmentalists, similarly, see an order in the natural world that preserves a balance that is beneficial to the life and well-being of the earth's inhabitants----human and non-human----and they believe that human activity is distorting that balance, with devastating results.  Both think that it's better for the natural world to be a certain way. 

Perhaps the anti-environmentalist readers of Psalm 104 are correct to say that a biblical view is that the natural world is not so fragile.  Or maybe Psalm 104 actually is consistent with an environmentalist view that the natural world is fragile and delicate.  Psalm 104:30 says that God will send forth God's spirit and renew the face of the earth, but that does not preclude the possibility that humans can cause damage to the earth.  Perhaps Psalm 104:30 is eschatological and says what God will one day intervene and do, namely, renew the natural world and make it fertile (think Second Isaiah, and other prophetic books).  The Jewish commentator Radak interpreted Psalm 104:30 in light of the resurrection from the dead.

But that doesn't necessarily have to lead to a view that we need not be concerned about the environment because Christ will come back and clean everything up, for Psalm 104 is about the beauty of the natural world and how God cares about all of the earth's creatures.  In my mind, if God cares for all of the earth's creatures, then so should we.

2.  The orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary took some swipes at evolution.  It said that Psalm 104 presents God making habitations for animals rather than animals adapting to those habitations.  Appealing to Rashi and Radak, it states regarding Psalm 104:18: "At first glance, the remote and barren mountains appear to serve no purpose; but in fact they were created to provide a habitat for the wild mountain goats".  The Artscroll said that v 24 teaches that God designed everything by God's wisdom, which means that "No creature evolved by chance..."  A key theme in the Artscroll's interpretation of Psalm 104 is that it teaches that God made a cosmos in which everything has a purpose: v 19 affirms that the moon is for festivals, and v 24 communicates that "God did not allow a single inch [of God's creation] to go to waste", for the earth is full of God's possessions.

A few of the conservative Christian sermons that I heard about Psalm 104 took swipes at evolution.  The Artscroll interested me, however, for I got to see how some Orthodox Jews approach the evolution question.  And I will say that its thoughts were more profound and beautiful than what I heard in the conservative Christian sermons (which largely beat up on evolutionists and said that they didn't want to submit to the preachers, cough, I mean God!).

Personally, I think that Psalm 104 is beautiful and contains truth, even if I do not adopt the cosmology of its author.  As many scholars note, Psalm 104 itself was probably influenced by the ancient Egyptian Hymn to Aten and various ancient Near Eastern motifs, so the author of Psalm 104 himself was drawing on sources----some of which he probably did not regard as infallible----in seeking to understand and to glorify God.  Psalm 104 is about the order and beauty of the natural world.  However that natural world came to be, I can still agree with Psalm 104 that it is wondrous.

3.  Psalm 104 ends with a desire that sinners and wicked people be consumed from the earth.  One view that I read said that this is because the wicked have no place in the beautiful, orderly world that Psalm 104 describes.  I can see this point of view, for evil is destructive and disruptive of harmony, whereas Psalm 104 is all about a harmonious natural world that benefits humans and animals.  And yet, I was drawn to another view that I read in the Midrash on the Psalms and the Artscroll (which cited Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a): that one should read Psalm 104:35 to say that God will eliminate sins (rather than sinners), and that, once God does that, there will be no more wicked people.  The idea seems to be that God will destroy the wicked by converting them into something other than wicked: into good people.  It sounds rather universalist!  I'm not sure if Psalm 104 is really saying that.  But I still like the concept!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 8: Slippery Slopes

My latest reading of Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (copyright 1984) was interesting because it brought to my mind discussions that I have had with people about abortion, as well as pro-life Republican Todd Akin's controversial comments during the 2012 elections.

Luker was talking about what the pro-life and the pro-choice movements may have to do to be successful in a country (namely, the United States) in which most people have middle-of-the-road views on abortion.  On the pro-life side, Luker believes that pro-lifers in some sense undermine their own position when they support exceptions for rape and the life of the mother, for that compromises their stance that the right to life is absolute and places them on a slippery slope.  Why, she asks, should we prioritize the mother over the embryo in these cases, but not in other cases?  And, if a woman who was raped should not have to bear her rapist's baby because the pregnancy was unexpected, why shouldn't women with other unexpected pregnancies be allowed to have an abortion?  Moreover, Luker notes that anti-abortion laws in the past had an exception for the life of the mother, with the result that some doctors interpreted that exception strictly, whereas others interpreted it broadly (since one could arguably be saving a mother's life through abortion if the pregnancy would harm her mental health or lead her to suicide).  

Luker refers to pro-life attempts to justify abortion to save the life of the mother.  One way is to say that this occurs rarely, but Luker responds that its lack of frequency has nothing to do with whether it's ethical or not.  Another way is to say that directly killing the embryo through abortion is wrong, but performing a procedure that has the consequence of taking the embryo's life (even though that is not the procedure's main purpose) is acceptable.  For example, on page 231, Luker refers to the view of Thomas Bouscaren: "In the case of ectopic pregnancies, where an embryo begins growing in the Fallopian tube rather than in the uterus, Bouscaren argued that although it would be wrong to surgically remove the embryo, thus causing its death, it would be acceptable to remove the diseased tube, thus causing the death of the embryo indirectly."  Luker's problem with this argument is that it emphasizes the subjective intent of the physician.  A third way is to treat the embryo as an "unjust aggressor" when it threatens the life of the mother, and thus it can be aborted, the same way that killing an aggressor is justified for the sake of self-defense.  But Luker does not think that portraying the embryo as an "unjust aggressor" will help the pro-life cause.

Regarding pro-life treatment of the rape exception to an abortion ban, Luker says on page 235: "Most of the pro-life people we interviewed said that women who are raped simply don't become pregnant very often, and many of them said they thought this was because something biological happens to rape victims that precludes the possibility of pregnancy."  This sounds like what Todd Akin said, which means that Akin was probably drawing from a belief that exists within the pro-life movement, at least as early as the 1980's.  Luker does not agree with this view, for she said that women "who promptly report the rape" don't become pregnant very often because they undergo procedures that eliminate pregnancy "in its earliest stage" (page 235).

On the pro-choice side, Luker says that its emphasis on women being able to do what they want with their own bodies can strike people as rather selfish.  But it was mainly Luker's treatment of the pro-life side that brought to my mind discussions that I have had and things that I have read about abortion.  In college, a pro-choice friend of mine once asked me why we should have an exception for the life of the mother, when that exception assumes that the mother is more valuable than the embryo.  He was probably wondering why, if I were to regard the mother as more important in that case, I couldn't regard her as more important in other cases, as well.  My friend did not buy into the "unjust aggressor" argument, which he read in one of Ronald Reagan's anti-abortion writings, for my friend said that the embryo was not intentionally causing the mother's death.  I also heard the argument that it's acceptable to indirectly cause the death of an embryo when I was talking on the phone with a pro-life, pro-family activist, looking for an internship in a Christian conservative organization, and I've come across it when reading the views of Republicans who don't believe in an exception for the life of the mother.  Usually, they say that a procedure to save the mother's life whose intent was not to kill the embryo, but which ends up killing the embryo, is acceptable.

When it came to exceptions, they did not particularly disturb me when I was more of a pro-lifer.  Granted, I could not answer my pro-choice friend's question of why we should regard the mother's life as more important when an embryo was threatening it, but I didn't think that this one ambiguous case was enough to overthrow the entire notion that, in most cases, a woman should not be able to kill her unborn baby.  After all, there are exceptions to all sorts of ethical rules (i.e., don't kill), but that does not invalidate the rules.  And yet, there are usually sophisticated philosophical justifications for those exceptions.  Luker does not think that there is a sufficient justification, however, for pro-lifers to allow abortion to save the life of the mother.

There's something that I wonder, though: Couldn't arguments that pro-choicers use to justify abortion also be used to justify infanticide?  If a mother can justifiably have an abortion because she can't afford to raise kids or feels that she wouldn't make a good mother, why couldn't she justifiably kill her children for those reasons after they come out of the womb?  On some level, Luker interacts with this question on pages 229-230, as she points out what she feels are weaknesses in pro-lifers' exception for the life of the mother:

"Thus the dilemma: if all embryos really are 'babies' and by definition 'innocent' and physically dependent, on what moral grounds can the lives of some of them be ended?  For example, it is not hard to imagine that the activities of a healthy, active three-year-old could threaten the life of an overburdened, anemic mother with active cardiac disease.  But even the most active abortion supporter would recoil from the suggestion that this three-year-old should have its life ended in order to save the life of its mother.  In part this is common sense: three-year-olds can be cared for by others, but embryos, at least for now, cannot.  But if pro-life groups concede that the physical dependence of embryos makes them different in this critical way from already-born children, then they have seriously called into question their own argument that there is no moral difference between an embryo of three days and a child of three years."

Luker is pointing out what she believes is a weakness in a pro-life position that has an exception for the life of the mother: if an embryo's life can be taken because it threatens a mother's life, why couldn't the life of an already born child be taken when it threatens a mother's life----if the mother has heart problems, for example?  But I think that the same sort of question can be asked regarding the pro-choice position, and so pro-choicers need to address more fully why abortion is acceptable, but taking the life of an already-born child is not.  A pro-choicer can say that an already-born child is part of a social network, but I think that we're on slippery ground if we assume that this is what gives someone value as a living human being.  After all, some people after their birth aren't social or particularly cared for by their family or others, and yet I doubt that pro-choicers would deny their right to live.  Perhaps a pro-choicer could say that a mother could give her child to someone else after the child is born, whereas she can't while she is still pregnant, but why couldn't a pregnant woman make plans to do that after the child's birth?
In any case, I think that both pro-life and also pro-choice positions are rather slippery.

Fireproof: Realism and Christian Characters

This is my second post on the 2008 Christian movie, Fireproof, which starred Kirk Cameron.  This movie is about a firefighter named Caleb, whose marriage is on the rocks.  Caleb's father, John, a Christian, advises Caleb to practice the 40-Day "Love Dare", in which Caleb refrains from saying a negative word to his spouse and does kind things for her.  It was amusing to watch Caleb sincerely try to do these things, only to be rebuffed continually by his wife.

This raises a question: Are Christian movies unrealistic in their depiction of people?  A while back, I watched the E! True Hollywood Story about Growing Pains, and it went into Kirk Cameron's conversion to evangelical Christianity.  The way that some on the documentary were portraying it, Cameron continually brought up his problems with the scripts----he didn't think that Mike (his character) should lie to his parents or have sex, for example.  One person was saying----and I'm basing this on my memory of watching this documentary years ago, and that may be flawed----that Christian movies lacked characters who struggled morally.  In many movies, this guy was explaining, a hero struggled to do the right thing and perhaps grew, but, in Christian movies, the hero was expected to do the right thing automatically.

I think that's an unfair statement, on some level, because I've seen a number of Christian movies in which a character struggles to do the right thing and grows.  That's just part of storytelling.  Without struggle and growth, you don't have much of a story, and I believe that even those who write Christian movies realize that.  In the case of Fireproof, Caleb struggles to save his marriage against high odds----he and his wife are distant from each other, his wife is cold and arguably hateful towards him, and his wife is being pursued by the dashing doctor at the hospital at which she works.

But I will say this: In many Christian movies, it does appear as if the Christian characters usually have their acts together.  There are exceptions----I think of the movie The Wager, in which Randy Travis plays a Hollywood actor who struggles to follow Christ, in the midst of trials.  But my impression----and I'm open to correction on this----is that the Christian characters in Christian movies ordinarily do not struggle a great deal, but they are automatically loving and have inner peace.  Even in The Wager, the Randy Travis-character's sister comes across as that kind of person----one who has her act together.  In the case of Fireproof, some of these Christian characters struggled in the past.  Caleb's Christian co-worker, Michael, failed at his previous marriage, but that was before he became a Christian.  And Caleb's father was once the object of the 40-Day "Love Dare", as he wanted to divorce his wife (Caleb's mother), and she saved their marriage by showing him unconditional love.  But these characters' struggles were a thing of the past, for now they were Christians and had learned the secret of how to love people successfully (i.e., embrace Jesus' unconditional love for them, notwithstanding their sins and faults).  Regarding one of the Christian characters in the movie----a nurse who works at the same hospital as Caleb's wife----we don't know her background, but she is a fountain of love, wisdom, and concern.  She has her act together, in a world where the rest of us struggle.

In my opinion, there is a sense in which these types of Christian characters make Christian movies better.  Regarding Fireproof, Michael and Caleb's father are like a refuge for Caleb in the midst of his storms, oases in a desert----they are rocks of wisdom, understanding, patience, and love.  On the other hand, I don't think that one should conclude that all Christians in the world are like that in real life.  Sure, there are plenty who are, but there are also plenty who are cliquish, cold, self-absorbed, and uncaring.  Speaking for myself, I tended to identify with Caleb in his struggles----even when he was selfish----more than I did with the Christian characters.  I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the movie is going for: Many of us are like Caleb, but, through Christ, we can become like the Christian characters.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 7

In my latest reading of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (copyright 1984), Kristin Luker explores the role of motherhood in women's stances on abortion.  (And, by the way, Luker presents a statistic that women comprise the majority of the pro-life and the pro-choice movements.)  Her argument, based on interviews, is that pro-life women activists largely focus their energies on the domestic sphere.  Pro-choice women activists, by contrast, tend to be higher-income and more committed to professions outside of the home.  Again, this is not an absolute, but Luker is speaking about trends that she observed.

What's this mean, in terms of abortion?  If a pro-life woman homemaker has an unexpected pregnancy, she already has a structure in place to care for that child, since she is already caring for children.  A professional woman with an unexpected pregnancy, by contrast, would see the unexpected pregnancy as an interference to her career and her aspirations, and she would probably doubt her ability to raise another child.  That's what I got out of Luker's discussion.

Another interesting point that Luker made was that many pro-life women prefer the domestic sphere to the paying workforce because their options are limited in terms of jobs.  Whereas many pro-choice women have the education to pursue more fulfilling vocations, pro-life women are limited to lower-paying jobs, such as those in the service sector.  Consequently, pro-life women think that the domestic sphere is better than the paying workforce.

Would Luker's analysis be accurate about thirty years later, in 2012?  I'm not entirely sure.  I do know women who are homemakers, but there are also a lot of women who work because they want to or they have to, and this includes pro-life women.  And I wouldn't be surprised if there are a number of pro-life women who have received college and graduate educations.  I've met or heard of a number of them!  But there may be something to Luker's view that pro-life women tend to be women who root their identities in being wives and mothers, rather than a professional career.

Fireproof: Getting the Car Out of the Tracks

A while back, I saw Fireproof, a 2008 Christian movie that starred Kirk Cameron.  To be honest, I'm not particularly in the mood right now to write a full-fledged review, and so what I may do is write a little bit about the movie each day until I'm tired writing about it.

In this movie, Kirk Cameron plays a firefighter, Caleb Holt, whose marriage is on the rocks.  That's the overall plot of the movie.  But the movie has a dramatic scene that isn't really a part of that overall plot.  In this scene, Caleb and other firefighters are trying to move a car out of some railroad tracks, and a woman and her little girl are trapped inside of the car.  Meanwhile, a train is coming.  The firefighters succeed in getting the car out of the tracks, but barely, and the train races behind the head of Caleb's Christian friend Michael, knocking off his helmet.  Michael screams as this takes place.  This is a powerful and an intense scene, and the soundtrack that is playing during it is awesome.

See it for yourself here.  Start at the 6:00 mark.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Completing The Cambridge Companion to Philo

I finished The Cambridge Companion to Philo.  In this post, I'll talk some about the last two essays in the book.

1.  A few posts ago, I mentioned that ancient Christians preserved Philo's writings, whereas Jews did not.  David Runia has an essay, "Philo and the Early Christian Fathers", that goes more deeply into that.  Why did ancient Christians preserve Philo?  There were a variety of reasons----Philo discussed Jewish history, some Christians thought that that he was describing Christians when he wrote about the Therapeutae, and Philo believed in a logos that was a sort of intermediary for God, and a number of Christians had a similar conception of God in which they identified Jesus Christ as the logos.  I said in that post that there were ancient Christians who thought that Philo actually was a Christian, but that wasn't true of all ancient Christians.  When Philo allegorizes Noah's ark as the human body and says that its openings represented the lower body parts that were for waste, for example, Augustine does not care for that particular interpretation, although he does have a high regard for Philo.  Augustine concludes that Philo made that poor interpretation because he was a Jew who did not know about Christ and thus was unaware that the Ark's openings represented the sacraments flowing from the side of the church.

2.  David Winston has an essay, "Philo and Rabbinic Literature".  Winston addresses the question of whether or not there was a relationship between Philo and rabbinic literature----if Philo influenced rabbinic literature, and if the Palestinian traditions that later made their way into rabbinic literature influenced Philo.  My impression is that, overall, Winston is skeptical.  He refers to the possibility that Philo got traditions from a common pool with that of the Palestinian Jews rather than being influenced by them (the Palestinian Jews), and that Philo could have arrived independently at the interpretations he held that were similar to those in rabbinic literature.  Winston (if I read his essay correctly) appeared to be open to the possibility that Palestinian Judaism influenced Philo to highlight repentance, a concept that really was not in Stoicism and Greek philosophy.  But Winston later says that Neopythagoreanism believed in self-examination, and that could have enabled Philo to incorporate repentance into his thought more smoothly.  Could Philo have gotten repentance from the Hebrew Bible rather than Palestinian Judaism?  I think so, even though, as Winston notes, the rabbis (and I think Philo) tended to read repentance into certain Torah passages when the concept was not there.

Another interesting topic that Winston discussed was the views on inspiration that were held by Philo and the rabbis.  The rabbis held to a notion of divine dictation----that God was telling Moses what to write, word-for-word----though there were some rabbis who thought that, at times, Moses added his own two cents to the Torah.  Philo, however, saw a larger role for the genius of Moses.
I'm actually glad I bought this book and that I own these essays, since they will be helpful to me in my studies.

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 6: Worldviews

In my latest reading of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker discussed the difference of worldview between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.  She doesn't mean that all pro-lifers or all pro-choicers adopt the worldview that she ascribes to them, but rather she notes trends that she observed in her interviews with activists.  So please keep in mind that what follows is not absolute, but it may describe general trends, at least during the 1980's, when Luker wrote this book.

According to Luker, pro-lifers believe in moral rules, even though they don't perfectly live up to them, since there are pro-life women who have had abortions.  Pro-choicers, by contrast, don't have as rigid a view regarding morality, and they make moral decisions by looking at competing claims and what's good for people involved.  Luker states that pro-choicers have a New Testament approach to ethics, one that subordinates rules to love.  For example, pro-choicers don't think that putting a child up for adoption is preferable to abortion, for the former would put the child into a world where he or she might not be loved or receive adequate care.

On a related note, pro-choicers regard personhood as social, and so they maintain that one becomes a person at birth, when one first socially interacts with people.  Pro-lifers, by contrast, are frightened by this suggestion, for they regard personhood as innate rather than socially-conditioned, and they fear that valuing people based upon their contribution to society is similar to Nazism.

At the same time, according to Luker, pro-choicers are not for women carelessly getting pregnant and having multiple abortions.  Luker states that they dislike this because the women had other alternatives----such as birth control----and multiple abortions usurp "the potential rights of the embryo by trivializing them" (page 180).  I can't say that I entirely understand the pro-choice position here, for, if abortion is acceptable, what would be wrong with having more than one abortion?  Something tells me that even pro-choicers are seeing the embryo as something other than a blob of tissue.  But this position calls to my mind a conversation that I was having with pro-choicers back in my conservative college days.  A pro-choicer said that she was against abortion personally but did not think that the law should ban abortion, and so I asked her why she was against abortion personally.  Her response was that abortion was too easy of a solution----that sex and pregnancy should be considered as more weighty than an attitude of "Oh, I'm pregnant again----time to have another abortion!" would suggest.

Pro-lifers regard sex as sacred because it produces children, whereas pro-choicers regard sex as sacred in terms of intimacy.  Pro-choicers also think that sex should not only be for procreative purposes, as Luker says on pages 176-177: "From their point of view, if the purpose of sex were limited to reproduction, no rational Creator would have arranged things so that an individual can have hundreds or even thousands of acts of intercourse in a lifetime, with millions of sex cells----egg and sperm----always at the ready."  Regarding the sanctity of sex, this, too, reminds me of a discussion that I had with a pro-choicer in my college days.  I was saying that people should wait until they are married to have sex because anything else would cheapen sex and its sanctity, and one lady wondered what exactly was so sacred about sex: she saw it primarily as a physical act!  She converted to Islam sometime after that discussion, so I'm curious as to whether her view is different, now.

Pro-lifers think that God has a plan, and so they believe that an unexpected pregnancy is part of that plan.  Pro-choicers, by contrast, are less religious (or are spiritual but not religious), and they don't believe that any ills of society are God's will, which is why they believe that it's important for human beings to stop them.  This, presumably, would include preventing a child from growing up unwanted.  This debate recalled to my mind Richard Mourdock's comments during the 2012 elections.

On whether or not Luker's characterizations gel with my experience, I'd say not entirely.  On the issue of abortion, yes, pro-lifers probably have a rigid sense of rules whereas pro-choicers are more open to situational ethics, but what about other issues?  On a number of issues, it seems as if the Left is absolutist whereas the Right conditions ethics on the situation.  I think of the use of torture in interrogation techniques, or funding violent groups to fight Communism, ideas that the Right has championed.  And, regarding sex, I think that conservatives, too, value sex as a means of intimacy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 5: The Pro-Life Movement and Ideology

In my latest reading of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker discussed the development of the pro-life movement.  At first, during the 1960's (prior to 1967), the pro-life movement consisted largely of Catholic male professionals, who believed that there was more of a national consensus that abortion was murder than there actually was, and thus they were shocked by the lack of outrage at such things as California's liberalized abortion law.  After 1973's Roe vs. Wade decision, however, women who highly valued their identity as wives and mothers regarded Roe as an attack on their values, and so they joined the pro-life movement.  There were others who were joining the pro-life movement out of a variety of motives: minorities were joining because they were against devaluing the lives of the vulnerable, people who lost a child were joining because they had issues with people voluntarily giving up their unborn children through abortion, and there were others who realized that they themselves could have been aborted.

One question that I had during my latest reading concerned whether the pro-life movement was right-wing or left-wing.  Luker says that there were Republicans (even a Republican organization) who supported California's liberalized abortion law.  My impression, from what Luker and others (such as Lou Cannon) have said, is that the 1960's was not a time when the Republicans were pro-life while the Democrats were pro-choice, for things were much more complex than that.  There were pro-choice Republicans, and there were Catholic pro-life Democrats.

But, according to Luker, there was some conflict between many of the women who joined the pro-life movement after 1973, and the older generation of pro-lifers.  According to Luker, many of the post-1973 pro-life women lacked the level of education of many of the pre-1973 pro-lifers, and so many of the pre-1973 pro-lifers regarded themselves as genteel while seeing the post-1973 pro-lifer women as strident and unsophisticated.  Was there a liberal-conservative divide between the pre-1973 and the post-1973 pro-lifers?  I'm not entirely sure, but there may be a grain of truth to that (and here I'm diverging from what Luker explicitly argues and doing my own speculation).  Many of the post-1973 pro-life women were arguably conservative in that they championed a traditional role for women.  Meanwhile, Luker quotes a pre-1973 pro-lifer who said that she did not like being told to vote for a pro-life candidate if he was not a good candidate, and she noted that she was also pro-life in her opposition to world hunger, capital punishment, and war.  This reminds me of liberals today who chastise right-wing Republicans for being pro-life on abortion but not on other issues, such as poverty, the death penalty, and war.  Was this pre-1973 pro-lifer expressing concern that the pro-life cause was being hijacked by the Republican Party?

At the same time, I gather from Luker's narrative that there were people who were joining the pro-life movement who were not particularly right-wing.  Many minorities who were concerned that abortion was devaluing life were probably not right-wing Republicans.  At least I doubt that they were, and I'm open to correction on this.

One thing that I was thinking about as I read Luker was the White House Conference on Families during the Carter Administration.  I have watched scenes from this conference on the PBS documentary, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Episode 3: We Are Family (1974-1980).  What I noticed was that there were obviously a number of pro-lifers at the conference who were conservative, but there was one pro-lifer who said that he was also against war and capital punishment.  Was this a time somewhere in between the pro-life cause being open to a variety of perspectives, and the pro-life cause becoming more firmly associated with the Republican Party and right-wing conservatism?  Do we see an intermediary stage here? 

(UPDATE: On page 216, Luker states that 1976 marked an anti-abortion plank in the Republican platform as well as the Hyde Amendment banning government funding of poor women's abortions.)

I'd like to close this post with two items.  First, please read Mehdi Hasan's excellent article for the Huffington Post, Being Pro-Life Doesn't Make Me Any Less Of A Lefty.  Second, I'd like to quote what Luker says on page 157: "To argue that embryos are entitled to all the rights of personhood, despite their 'condition of dependency,' because they possess the entry-card of forty-six human chromosomes is to emphatically assert that personhood is a 'natural,' inborn, and inherited right, rather than a social, contingent, and assigned right."  That's a rich statement.  Do I regard personhood as a natural right, or as a social, contingent, and assigned right?  The latter position somewhat scares me, for I am leery to give society the latitude to decide who is worthy of being considered a human being, and I think that such a power could be abused.  And yet, would adopting the former position make life an absolute right, even in cases of war and capital punishment?

Universal Sabbath; Powers and God's Personality; Ethics; Who Said

For my write-up today on The Cambridge Companion to Philo, I'll do what I did yesterday: I'll refer to some things that stood out to me in each essay that I read (or began to read, or finished reading).

1.  I finished Christina Termini's "Philo's Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism".  I especially appreciated her discussion of the Sabbath in Philo's thought, for I am interested in the question of ancient Jewish beliefs regarding the relationship of the Gentiles to the Mosaic Torah (perhaps because I grew up in churches that held that the Sabbath is commanded for everyone----Jews and Gentiles).  On page 117, Termini states that Philo regarded the Sabbath as "a holy, public, and universal holiday that celebrates the birthday of the world."  According to Termini, Philo thought that people in ancient times forgot the weekly calendar, and so it was re-established under Moses (Life of Moses 1.205-207; 2.263-269).  Termini cites Decalogue 96, in which Philo states that there are other peoples who keep a holy day every month, but the Jews keep the Sabbath every seventh day.  Termini appears to be arguing that Philo believed that the Sabbath was somehow applicable to the Gentiles.  Perhaps she's right, for Philo in Decalogue 100 says that it would be a good thing if people set aside a day for rest and philosophical contemplation.  But did Philo maintain that Gentiles were commanded to keep the Sabbath?  At the present time, I'm rather skeptical, for Philo in Decalogue 98 presents the Sabbath as something that God commanded for "this state", namely, Israel.

2.  The next essay that I read was Roberto Radice's "Philo's Theology and Theory of Creation".  Like Termini, Radice wrestles with the issue of how Philo conceptualized the "powers" that were a part of God----were they actual beings, or were they metaphorical descriptions of how God acts, or what?  Radice seems to treat them as intermediate beings, but what I thought as I read Termini and Radice's treatments of this issue is that perhaps Philo wasn't fully consistent about what the powers were.

I especially liked Radice's discussion on pages 126-127 about how Philo conceived of God.  At times, Philo appears to regard God as personal, which would accord with the Hebrew Bible.  At other times, however, Philo seems to view God as impersonal and to regard the personal depictions of God in the Hebrew Bible as anthropomorphisms for common people, and that would accord more with ancient philosophy.  Radice states on page 127 that Philo's position was probably between these two poles: that God has a personality in the sense that he has thoughts, like human beings, and yet God is above human beings, in terms of both thoughts and also God's "physical aspect" (Radice's words).

3.  The next essay, Carlos Levy's "Philo's Ethics", was probably my favorite one in the book.  Philo was an ascetic, and he arguably drew from Stoicism.  But did Philo agree with the Stoic notion that the passions should be extirpated?  Levy argues that he did not.  Levy notes passages where Philo supports moderation (which Abraham exercises in grieving for Sarah), sees a legitimate role for some passions (i.e., procreation), or does not encourage people to jump into philosophical contemplation immediately but rather to prepare themselves for it, through education or political involvement.

4.  I started Folker Siegert's "Philo and the New Testament".  What stood out to me in this essay was Siegert's discussion of who said the words that are in the Scriptures.  Siegert says that, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Psalms are believed to contain the words of the Holy Spirit, words that the Father addressed to the Son, and words of the Son himself.  Similarly, Philo treated the words of Jacob in Genesis 37:10 (in which Jacob rebukes Joseph for his dream) as uttered by the orthos logos.  They were Jacob's words, in a sense, and yet they were much more.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Serving and Served Messiah

I said in one of my posts on Friday that, today, I would write about my church's Bible study.  We're going through A Fragile Stone, Peter: Jesus' Friend, with Michael Card

A point that Michael Card has made more than once is that Jesus was not exactly the sort of Messiah that Peter and many Jews at the time were expecting.  According to Card, Jesus was a Messiah who would serve others and suffer and die to bring people forgiveness, whereas Peter and many Jews were anticipating a glorious ruler who would be served rather than serve.  What's more, Card believes that Peter's disappointment in Jesus, not Peter's fear, was what was behind his threefold denial of Jesus.  Peter was disappointed when he saw Jesus being arrested and afflicted, even as Jesus did nothing to stop it.  For Card, Peter didn't deny Jesus out of fear, but he did so because he didn't know who Jesus was anymore.

What's my reaction to this scenario?  You can read here for Thom Stark's thoughts on the debate over whether or not there were Jews prior to or during the time of Jesus who anticipated a suffering Messiah (and Stark's post also contains links to Richard Carrier's posts, which Stark is seeking to refute).   We can say, however, that, after the first century, there were rabbis who had a conception of a suffering Messiah (see here).  But, whether or not there were Jews before or during the first century who expected a Messiah who would suffer, I agree with Card that----looking at the Gospels themselves----Peter in the narratives did not expect for Jesus to suffer and die.  In Mark 8:32, after all, Peter rebukes Jesus when Jesus says that the Son of Man will suffer, be killed, and rise again after three days.  I do not think that a suffering Messiah was anywhere in Peter's Messianic expectations.  And that may have been one reason that Peter was swinging his sword when Jesus was arrested.

I am somewhat reluctant, though, to embrace Card's narrative that Christianity is better than Judaism because Christianity had a serving Messiah, whereas Judaism expected a powerful and glorious Messiah who would be served by others.  I've heard evangelicals abuse this sort of notion.  One evangelical in a class that I once took made the blanket statement that "the Jews were all about power", which prompted a negative response from a Jewish student in the class!  I'm not suggesting in the least that Michael Card is anti-Judaism, for he quotes the rabbis and depicts Jesus observing Jewish customs.  But I do believe that presenting Christianity as a religion of service and Judaism as a religion that longed for a powerful Messiah can encourage unfair stereotypes of Judaism.

It's not just that the Torah emphasizes such values as compassion for others, but I also suggest that perhaps Judaism's Messianic expectations in the first century, too, had an element of compassion.  The Messiah, according to first century Judaism, was to be one who would deliver the oppressed of Israel, bring peace, and punish evildoers.  Is this not an act of service, which enhances the lives of others?  Sure, this Messiah would be served, honored, and glorified, but Christians believe that Jesus will be served, honored, and glorified when he comes back.  What's the difference?

At the same time, I will say that I, as a Christian, appreciate Jesus taking on himself the role of a servant.  What Michael Card says on page 54 resonates with me: "Does the fact that Jesus was waiting on the shore to serve the disciples breakfast make you, like Michael Card, want to fall down and worship Him more than if He had been waiting with legions of angels?"

Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 4

I have two items for my write-up today on Kristin Luker's Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.

1.  I found Luker's discussion of women's jobs to be interesting----and I should note that she doesn't believe that women should be limited to those jobs, but rather she is acknowledging that, at the time that she was writing this book (the 1980's), there were certain professions that were "largely female" (page 114).

According to Luker, these jobs don't require a lot of education, making them fairly easy to enter.  Luker says that a lady can become a "diploma" nurse a few years after high school, whereas becoming a doctor entails 8-10 years of education after high school.  Luker also states that the jobs that women largely have are easy to re-enter after a period of absence, and so the jobs allow them to work, take time off to raise their kids, and then re-enter the work force.  Luker states to illustrate this point that "The skills needed to be a nuclear physicist deteriorate dramatically over time, but the skills needed to be an elementary school teacher do not" (page 114).  At the same time, according to Luker, there are downsides to the jobs that women tend to do: there is often little room for advancement or significant increase in pay.

This is part of Luker's larger argument that, for pro-choicers, equality in the work-force entails reproductive freedom, for an unexpected pregnancy can disrupt women's lives, monetary situation, and careers.  But I found the discussion interesting because it was about different kinds of jobs.  Are thing different now, almost thirty years after Luker's book was published?  I think that jobs that used to be occupied by men are being opened up to women.  But I also notice that women are in certain professions, such as secretaries, elementary school teachers, etc.

2.  Luker has a chapter on the rise of the pro-life movement.  I have not finished this chapter yet, but what I read so far said that, during the 1960's (until 1967), the right-to-life movement consisted of a number of male Catholic professionals, and they assumed that most people agreed with them that abortion was murder because people did not talk about abortion that much in public----as if people regarded it as shameful.  But Luker states that the reticence about abortion was not so much due to a common belief that abortion was murder, but rather a general public reticence about sex, period.  As a result of a number of pro-lifers' misunderstanding of many people's sentiments, Luker narrates, they (the pro-lifers) were shocked that there was not mass outrage at the liberalized abortion law in California.

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