Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ron Paul's End the Fed 2: The Janitor and William Jennings Bryan

In my latest reading of End the Fed, Ron Paul talks about the people who intellectually influenced him, and Paul mentions his upbringing and certain economists whom he met, read, and heard.

Another person who influenced Ron Paul was a janitor who worked at his high school when Paul was young.  This janitor complained about the bankers, and Ron Paul says that he (Ron Paul) didn't know enough at the time to probe the janitor about this.  But years later, in thinking back, Ron Paul speculates that the janitor was probably a "product of the Populist-Progressive Era of the late 1800s and the early 1900s", and that the janitor was perhaps "influenced by William Jennings Bryan's populism and attacks on bankers" (page 41).

Ron Paul then talks about William Jennings Bryan.  Paul notes that Bryan was not a champion of "our cause" (page 41).  Paul states that Bryan was not a libertarian, and (although Paul does not say so explicitly, at least not in my latest reading) Paul probably also has a problem with Bryan's opposition to the gold standard and support for free silver.  Yet, Paul expresses admiration for Bryan because Bryan opposed central banking and praised Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States.

I liked Ron Paul's anecdote and reflections on Bryan for a variety of reasons.  First, it's eye-opening and sobering to realize that there was a time when the people who are currently up there in years were young, and at that time they themselves knew people who were up there in years.  Time marches on!  I consider those who lived during the time of Franklin Roosevelt to be up there in years, but there was a time when they themselves were young, and the older generation of their day had experienced things earlier than Roosevelt, such as World War I and the progressive movement.  And, like Paul, we can find ourselves in a situation where we move on in years and gain understanding, and we wish that we could have asked the older generation of our youth some questions that in our youth did not occur to us.

Second, I appreciate the fact that Paul acknowledges value in what William Jennings Bryan said and did, even though Paul is clear that he does not agree with Bryan on a lot of things.  I wish people in politics saw value in the other side more often.

Third, it's ironic that, today, many (such as Ron Paul) who criticize the Federal Reserve and central banks tend to support the gold standard, when that was not always the case.  As I write about here, Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930's was a critic of international bankers, yet he also opposed the gold standard.  See also Emanuel Josephson's discussion of a scarcity vs. a surplus economy.  I have much to learn about why the Free Silver movement existed at the turn of the century.  From what I read online and in a book on economics, it had to do with enabling farmers and ranchers to pay their debts.  Free silver would weaken the dollar and expand the money supply and thus make the debts more manageable.  Imagine paying off a debt from (say 1900) with today's dollars.  The debt wouldn't be much because of inflation----what was a lot of money back then is not a lot of money now.  Free silver was championed by proponents as a defense of the little guy against the rich and powerful.  You can read and listen to Bryan's speech here.

Abstract Deities, (Not Quite) Divine Rulers, Mithraism

I finished Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.  I have three items.

1.  I found something that Koester says on pages 362-363 to be interesting.  Koester says that ancient Roman religion usually viewed their deities as "abstract powers rather than as anthropomorphic divine persons", but Etruscan and Greek influence led the Romans to personalize their deities a little more and to introduce cultic statues.

2.  A few posts ago, I discussed the notion of a divine king in Hellenism, and I said that Koester presents examples of such a concept occurring in imperial Rome, as well.  In my latest reading, however, Koester presents more nuance to that picture.  He discusses the ambivalence that Rome had towards regarding its rulers as gods.  Whereas Greeks regarded their rulers as epiphanies of a deity, the Romans "worshiped transcendent powers which, under special circumstances, might become active in exceptional human beings" (page 367).  Koester also states that it's unclear whether the emperor cult of Augustus worshiped Augustus as a god or rather his genius, or protective deity.

But Koester is clear that some Romans were less shy about declaring themselves to be gods.  Mark Antony and Caligula did so, and there were cases in which such occurred amidst controversy.  But other Roman rulers, such as Julius Caesar and Tiberias, were more reluctant to be considered gods.

3.  Koester discusses the cult of Mithras, an eastern mystery religion.  According to Koester, "Mithras was received by the Romans without resistance and, at the end of [the third century] CE, he even became the official god of the Roman state" (page 372).  Mithras was venerated by Parthians in the Hellenistic Period, but Koester denies that it was a mystery religion at that point.  He thinks that it became a mystery religion when it migrated "to the west at the beginning of the Roman imperial period" (page 372).

Mithraism only initiated men, and it primarily attracted soldiers, sailors, and merchants.  The "cult legend" of Mithras goes like this: Mithras was born on a rock on December 25, and shepherds brought him gifts.  Mithras kills a bull, and its blood and semen bring new life, "but a snake tries to drink the blood and a scorpion poisons the semen" (page 373).  The sun, moon, planets, and four winds behold the sacrifice, and Mithras eats the bull's meat and blood with the sun (the god Helios/Sol) as part of a covenant ceremony.  According to Koester, Sol then "kneels before Mithras, receives the accolade, and they shake hands" (page 373).  In terms of the Mithraic ceremony, an initiate was reborn and became a soldier of Mithras, and "The highest step of the initiations was to be identified with the sun (Sol)" (page 373).

I thought it was important for me to pay attention to what Koester says about Mithraism because of the popular debates over whether Christianity plagiarized its ideas from Mithraism.  A number of skeptics say "yes", whereas many Christian apologists retort that Christianity developed before Mithraism became popular.  Koester's chronology (if I'm understanding it correctly) appears to assume that Mithraism became part of Rome in the early days of the imperial period, which (if I'm not mistaken) is when Christianity developed.  At the same time, there are similarities and differences between Christianity and Mithraism.  Similarities include the notion of rebirth, eating flesh and blood, and shepherds visiting a prominent person at his birth.  The difference is that Mithras kills a bull, whereas Jesus does not.  Plus, the Mithras story appears to have more fantasy elements (if you will) than the Jesus stories, which are provided with more of a historical setting.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ron Paul's End the Fed 1

I started Ron Paul's End the Fed, which is about the Federal Reserve.  According to Ron Paul, a big reason that a national bank and (later) the Federal Reserve were established was so that money could be pumped into the economy, through printing money and also loans.  Without a national bank, banks are taking a risk when they loan money for people to start businesses, for there is a chance that the businesses would not be able to pay the banks back, and where would banks be then?  Consequently, the Federal Reserve exists to save banks were this to happen.  That encourages the banks to loan money for businesses, which supposedly helps the economy.

But Ron Paul does not care for the Federal Reserve.  He argues that its printing of more money devalues the dollar (whereas Paul contends that the purchasing power of gold has been high).  But what about banks that might go under when businesses are unable to pay them back?  Ron Paul says that banks should be more careful about who receives a loan in the first place!  Paul also says that the money that the Federal Reserve puts into the economy creates an illusory prosperity.  For Paul, it's better for people to save money and then to buy things and invest, and he states that this can bring down interest rates.  When the Federal Reserve lowers interests rates "on a whim" and thus encourages banks to make loans, when people have not been saving, then the result is that "goods that come to production can't be purchased[, b]usinesses fail, homes are foreclosed upon, and people bail out of stocks or whatever is the fashionable investment of the day" (page 30).

I'll stop here.  I was initially reluctant to read this book because I feared that it would be Ron Paul repeating over and over that printing more money creates inflation.  But it's more than that, because Paul seeks to explain the rationale for the Federal Reserve, and then to rebut that rationale.

Stimulus, Welfare, and Sacrifice

For my write-up today on Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, I'll talk about economic policy.  I have three items.

1.  On page 329, Koester talks about imperial Roman attempts to end exploitation, to bring economic recovery to the east, and to "provide for the constantly growing masses of poor in Rome's population."  Essentially, imperial Rome set up "a new system of imperial administration"; remitted taxes; stimulated the building of "temples, administrative buildings, roads, and ports"; and reestablished "secure trade routes".  The result was "a new economic upturn in many countries of the east, especially in the heavily populated and culturally developed western part of Asia Minor."  The imperial economic program for recovery appears to resemble features of what the Left and the Right propose.  The Left supports stimulus for building infrastructure, regulations that aim to get rid of exploitation, and tax cuts for the middle class.  Many on the Right support tax cuts and free trade.

2.  On pages 331-332, Koester talks about state welfare programs in Rome.  According to Koester, there weren't that many.  Trajan established a fund for the education of orphans and poor children, but, overall, charity was left to private benefactors.  There were some facilities for public health care, but mostly the wealthy got "regular medical attention", and so the common people had to resort to the services of "somewhat questionable wandering physicians, miracle workers, magicians, and astrologers".  Families took care of their own elderly.

But Christians made things better, at the private and also the public level.  Christian communities took care of their elderly.  And Christian emperors and churches helped to establish "almshouses, orphanages, and hospitals".  As in item 1, we see features of what the modern-day Left and Right in America support, for the Left believes that the government should play a role in charity, whereas the Right believes that the role belongs to the private sector.

3.  On pages 335-336, Koester talks about Christian associations, which included a few rich people but "larger numbers of craftsmen and working people...and some poor people and slaves."  According to Koester, "these Christian 'associations' in the cities of the Roman empire developed a system of mutual reliance and dependence that required greater sacrifices by the rich and thus created much more closely knit communities".

I do not know if the wealthy Christians were required to sacrifice more, or if that was voluntary on their part.  Of course, it was up to them whether or not they wanted to become Christians, but the teaching that their eternal destiny depended on them doing so would somewhat lessen the voluntary nature of the conversion.  In the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira were apparently not required to give all of their proceeds to the church (Acts 5:4), but there was probably social pressure to give a lot, since giving was considered the Christian thing to do.

Naturally, when setting up a system of "mutual reliance and dependence" within the church, those who had more would give more.  But, as one can see in II Thessalonians 3:10 and I Timothy 5, there was concern that those who truly needed help would be the ones who would receive it.  People had to work, if they could, and so they could not be freeloaders.  And many probably did work, for there were plenty of working people who were not rich (craftsmen, slaves, etc.), as is the case today.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Life and Tests

John Shore has a post about Chad Holtz entitled Chad Holtz now believes in hell. As to homosexuality . . . ?  You can read John's post or do an online search to get more information about Chad Holtz, but what I want to highlight here is an insightful comment under John's post by sdparris.  Whether it is applicable to Chad's situation or not, I think that it contains wisdom when it comes to recovery, meeting life on life's terms, and facing life's challenges:


"You are in the triumphant phase. You played by the rules and it worked. You’ve conquered the beast, in a way, making all things right in the world, or so it seems. It[']s a great feeling and right now everything lines up.

"Why do we say let[']s see what happens in six months? Because that is when the afterglow starts to wear off and life starts becoming real again. What got us into the mess to begin with rears its head again, and we find ourselves once again struggling. If, as you said, you had an addiction, expect it to happen. Its rarely a one time shot, but something people have to make conscious choices over for a while, sometimes for a lifetime. God sure can help you with the struggle, but the choice is ultimately yours...


"Expect life to continue to throw you curves. Your marriage took a big hit. Your relationship with your friend and family is altered. Hopefully for the better, we all want that, but experience has taught several of us that reality often is not what we want. I do hope your relationships continue to be strong and thriving.

"Life is the ultimate lesson plan, sometimes we ace the tests, sometimes we get F’s. Thankfully, we often get to retake those failed tests. The trick is to not get the same grade next time, which can be easier said then done…Personally, I keep making Fs or D- on the 'do not worry' quiz.

"Finally, if hell is the capstone belief of the Christian faith, then I must ask, for what purpose does it serve? And why is it so important to you? Does it matter that you have decided to go the conformist way and others haven’t? Is one’s belief in a horrible afterlife that important? Or is it something else that is important: that freedom in Christ, the realization that He loves us where we are, where we were, where we will be, warts and all? To me the concept of hell is of far lesser importance then the concept of life, living it as best we can, with the purpose of Loving God with all that I am, and my neighbor as best as I can (which is somewhat impossible at times despite best efforts)."

I especially appreciated the part about life giving us tests.  I feel bad when I look back at the mistakes I have made, especially when it comes to social faux-pas.  But, fortunately, life gives me opportunities to do things better the next time.

Aspies in the Church

On Rachel Held Evans' site, there is an excellent post by Erin Thomas on Embracing Faith As an Aspie.  The post is excellent, as were many of the comments.  But my favorite comment was by lainiep:

"As an aspie female myself, I resonate with a lot of what Erin has to say. One of the difficulties with Asperger's Syndrome is that it is often very difficult to find safe community. Ironically, this can be particularly difficult in churches that emphasize 'relationships,' 'transparency,' etc. For many people in these churches, someone who needs time to get to know others is clearly broken and in need of fixing.

"(An aspie is also vulnerable to abusers/bullies/power-trippers in churches who use the rhetoric of community.)

"Until churches are willing to acknowledge that genuine relationships take time to develop and stop expecting instant intimacy, aspies may have a difficult time finding a suitable worshiping community."

And Maddie_Faddenoid has a good response to that:

"I don't have aspergers but I'm introverted and I can relate to that so much. I went to a church that was all about 'relationships' and 'accountability' and I felt under a lot of pressure to share my biggest struggles and deepest vulnerabilities with people I wasn't totally comfortable with because I didn't know them very well at all. It was difficult. I was treated as if I had something wrong with me and it was hur[t]ful. The super-extroverted youth pastor just didn't get me at all and would leap to hurtful conclusions about me, my family, my upbringing and what he considered to be 'my issues' (none of his 'counsel' was solicited). It's horrible to have to justify who you cannot possibly help being when who you cannot possibly help being is treated as defective.  This was all in the name of relationships and accountability."

Anointed at Baptism

At church this morning, we had a baptism.  The liturgy said, "We praise you for sending Jesus your Son, who was baptized in the waters of the Jordan, and was anointed as the Christ by your Holy Spirit."  This made me think about adoptionist controversies: When was Jesus the Son of God?  Did he become that through the virgin birth?  Through his baptism?  Through his resurrection?  Was he God's son in a pre-existent state?  I'm sure that my church believes that Jesus was the Son of God in his pre-existent state.  But what happened at Jesus' baptism?  At his baptism, I take it from the liturgy, Jesus was anointed as the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. 

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 11: Moderate, Small Government Democrats

I finished Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.  In this post, I'd like to highlight something that Newt says on page 316:

The Tea Party movement "is not a movement of any one party.  While the recent GOP victories are good for the movement, success will also require moderate, small-government Democrats to beat the secular-socialist machine's candidates in Democratic districts."

This quote stood out to me because it reminded me of a time when I was reading about Christian Coalition people who were making inroads into the Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party!  Sure, you'd expect for all of them to be Republicans, but that's not the case.  A few are Democrats.  My question is this: Is there a difference between your typical Christian Coalition person who is a Democrat, and your typical Christian Coalition person who is a Republican?

I'm curious as to what Newt means by "moderate, small-government Democrats".  There are Democrats who are deficit-hawks, such as Leon Panetta and (I think) the Democratic Leadership Council.  Bill Clinton governed as a deficit-hawk.  My impression (and I am open to correction) is that these types of Democrats are not adverse to raising taxes, for that's what supposedly keeps the deficit from spiraling out of control.  And the Tea Party doesn't care for raising taxes!

But then there are Democrats who (ideology-wise) are practically Republicans.  In Massachusetts, a left-leaning lady once told me that politicians in parts of Massachusetts could not be elected as Republicans, and so they ran as Democrats.  But they govern as Republicans in the sense that they cut programs for the needy.

I'm the sort of person who would like for the government to help people and to make a positive difference, but to do so in a fiscally-responsible way.  What I wonder is this: Do the deficit-hawk Democrats fit the bill?  Bill Clinton had his critics from the Left, and so there was a feeling that his deficit-hawk, end-of-big-government ways hurt the needy.  But did these critics from the Left have their own program for fiscal responsibility?  Maybe tax the rich and end foreign wars, but how politically feasible is that?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 10: The Second Amendment

In my latest reading of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Newt Gingrich affirms that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms, for that enables people to defend themselves against tyranny.  Newt appeals to Federalist Number 46, in which James Madison presents an armed populace as a bulwark against tyranny.

I remember a Republican congressional candidate going to a high school and making that argument about the Second Amendment.  The students then cross-examined him on this.  If the people find themselves in a position where they need to fight their government because it's become tyrannical, they asked, shouldn't their weaponry be equal to what the government has, for them to stand a chance?  Wouldn't they need aircraft carriers, or nuclear weapons?  The candidate did not know how to answer these questions.

I suppose that, if the people needed to defend themselves against a tyrannical government, the government would have the advantage, for the government has bombs, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.  But I doubt that the government would want to wipe out everyone in America, were it to become tyrannical.  Who would it then control?  Who would support the economy, which sustains the government?  Maybe the government would bomb a few areas, but suppose an armed populace did not give up but kept resisting?  Could the government suppress that?

Psalm 87

For my weekly quiet time this week, I'll blog about Psalm 87.  Psalm 87 is extolling the splendor of Zion.  Psalm 87:4-6 is an especially intriguing passage that has sparked discussion among scholars and interpreters.  Vv 4-6 say (in the King James Version):

"(4) I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this [man] was born there.  (5) And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her.  (6) The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people, [that] this [man] was born there. Selah."

I first heard of this passage when I went to an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church in Massachusetts.  The pastor appealed to this passage to resolve the "those who never heard" problem----the question of how God can send to hell those who live in countries that have never heard of Christianity.  According to the pastor, Psalm 87:4-6 was saying that God at the last judgment will take into consideration where people were born rather than condemning people who lived in countries that lacked exposure to Christianity.

In my study, I found a variety of interpretations of what was going on in Psalm 87:4-6.  Here is a sample:

----Psalm 87:4-6 is saying that God regards the Jews who were born outside of Israel as citizens of Zion.  ("This man was born there"----"there" being taken as Zion.)  God will either restore them to Zion, or he regards their worship in the Diaspora as acceptable, like he considers the worship that takes place in Zion.

----Psalm 87:4-6 is affirming that God will regard Gentiles as citizens of Zion.  (Again, the "there" in "This man was born there" is taken to be Zion.)  According to this view, Psalm 87:4-6's message overlaps with that of the prophets who predicted that Gentiles would come to Zion and worship God.  Marvin Tate argues that there may be a precedent in the ancient Near East of regarding a foreigner as a citizen of one's own country.  Tate refers to Neo-Assyrian documents that treat newly conquered foreign peoples as Assyrians.  One thing that is interesting about this interpretation is that Psalm 87:4 calls Egypt Rahab, which was a sea-monster who was hostile to God.  Could Psalm 87:4-6 be holding out the hope that even those who are hostile to God will worship him at Zion?  This is not the only eschatological expectation regarding the Gentiles, for there are biblical passages that predict destruction rather than inclusion of some of the nations mentioned in Psalm 87:4-6.  But Psalm 87:4-6 may be one of the Hebrew Bible's inclusive voices.

----The Jewish commentator Radak says that the passage means that other nations have a few great men, whereas there are many great men (as v 5 says literally, man and man) in Zion.  (In this case, the "there" in the first "This man was born there" is taken to be the foreign countries.)

----The Jewish commentator Rashi offers the interpretation that vv 4-6 are saying that people who are born in the great lands of Egypt and Babylon are highly regarded, but there will come a time when those who are born in Zion will be highly regarded.  (Here again, the "there" in the first "This man was born there" is applied to the foreign countries.)

----Here's an idea I have: Maybe the people of the foreign countries are admiring those who were born in Zion.  (In this scenario, the "there" in the first "This man was born there" is Zion.)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jay Gilbert on Chick-Fil-A, Boston, and Chicago

In an online discussion, Jay Gilbert made the following insightful comment about the Chick-Fil-A controversy and how government officials in Boston and Chicago are treating the business:

"I fully support boycotting the restaurant (I have for years), but I think no government official has any business exerting this kind of pressure over someone's spoken opinion. This is exactly what the First Amendment is about: letting citizens say what they think, letting other citizens respond in appropriate ways, and government staying the hell out of it. In Chicago it's even worse, where an alderman is proudly blocking a long-standing Chick-Fil-A building permit. Is that where we want this to go? 50 years ago this would have meant you supported the government shutting down the businesses of anyone who spoke in FAVOR of gay rights."

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 9: Energy and the Environment

I have four items for my write-up today on Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.  Their focus is on the environment and/or energy.

1.  On page 240, Newt challenges the narrative that capitalism coincides with damage to the environment:

"This narrative fails to recognize that capitalist democracies are among the most environmentally conscious nations in the world.  As a rule, the more socialist a nation becomes, the more the environment suffers----just look at the environmental degradation that characterized nearly every Cold War-era Communist nation.  [W]ealth and freedom generally lead to better environmental practices; forests are declining in poor nations but expanding in wealthy ones."

Newt makes a good point when he says that a number of Communist countries have damaged the environment.  Here is an interesting article by the libertarian journal, The Freeman, on this issue, and this article also notes that governments pollute, so big government is not always the good guy.  But, in my opinion, that does not mean that "socialism" necessarily entails damage to the environment, for Western Europe and some of the Scandinavian countries do fairly well, environmentally-speaking (see here).  But, while many of them have regulations, some of them actually do the sorts of things that Newt supports: incentivizing clean energy.  Regarding Newt's statement that poor nations have declining forests, I think that what Newt fails to consider is that corporations go into poor countries and plunder their resources, and so capitalism cannot escape at least some blame for environmental degradation. 

2.  On page 243, Newt states what he thinks our policy should be towards climate change:

"Green conservatives should be skeptical, prudent, and smart.  We must demand complete objectivity from our scientists and our policymakers...If carbon overload should lead to major problems, our continuing investment in science and technology will give us the best chance of averting or adapting to the consequences."

Newt does not agree with left-wing hysteria about global warming, but he does not seem to dismiss the possibility that humans are causing it, to some degree.  He does not want to wreck the economy over it, but what if it turns out to be true?  In that case, he believes that technology would help us to avert its consequences or adapt to it.  Could we arrive at a position where it's too late, though----where global warming is causing so much damage, and it's really difficult to adapt to it or reverse it?

3.  Newt does not believe that renewable energy is the end-all, be-all, for he says that the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining (page 253).  (Yet, I have heard the argument that solar vehicles are powered by batteries when the sun is not shining.)  But Newt does support it.  He states on page 256 that "the southwest has so much sunlight that if companies constructed a series of solar plants covering 100 square miles, those plants could generate as much electricity as all the fossil fuel-fired plants in America."

But Newt notes (with disapproval) incidents in which environmentalists are challenging renewable energy projects because of threats to endangered species (see here and here).  In the case of the solar energy project in the Mojave Desert, however, the Sierra Club was not against the project, but rather wanted it to be located somewhere else so as to protect an endangered turtle.

4.  Newt supports ethanol.  Critics of ethanol, however, contend that it drives up food prices because fewer crops are being used for food.  Newt says on page 258, however, that "without the growth of biofuel yields, the American grain farmer will drown in a glut of production, and farm incomes will collapse."  So Newt believes that ethanol can actually help farmers avoid deflation.

The Pivotal Catiline Conspiracy

For my write-up today on Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, I'll use as a pivot the Catiline conspiracy.  You can read about the Catiline conspiracy here.

Essentially, Catiline was a Roman politician who sought to overthrow the Roman Republic in the first century B.C.E.  According to Koester, Cicero uncovered and thwarted this conspiracy, and so he was seen by many as the savior of Rome.  Cicero supported Pompey, but Pompey felt overshadowed by Cicero.  At the same time, Pompey was viewed as a savior in the east, and one reason may be that he defeated pirates.  Moreover, as Koester notes, Pompey sought to imitate "the Hellenistic ideal of the divine ruler" (page 296) by showing clemency to his enemies, and, rather than selling the defeated pirates into slavery, "he settled them in various sections of Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy" (page 297).  But Pompey was not as highly regarded in Rome, and so he formed an alliance (the First Triumvirate) with Crassus, the wealthiest Roman, and Julius Caesar.  The problem was that Julius Caesar had a shady reputation, for he was believed to have been involved in the Catiline conspiracy.

The Senate had problems with Caesar, and there was also chaos within its own ranks.  And estrangement occurred between Pompey and Caesar.  Caesar, who was away on a campaign, decided to cross the Rubicon and attack Rome, and he "moved so swiftly that Pompey had no chance to build up any resistance in Italy and had no chance to withdraw to the east" (pages 299-300).  Caesar gained control of the west, and Pompey was killed when he arrived at Egypt in flight.  Caesar wept when he saw Pompey's head.

I'd like to learn more about Roman history, for it does appear to contain a lot of drama, heroes, villains, etc.  Unfortunately, reading history books about the classics can easily bore me because I find those books to be dry.  But perhaps I can tough it out, and also pursue other routes.  I can read Taylor Caldwell's fictional book on Cicero, A Pillar of Iron.  I can also watch the series Rome, and I Claudius.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 8: Medicare

In my latest reading of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Newt Gingrich talks about Medicare.  He laments that a lot of money on Medicare is wasted on account of such things as Medicare fraud, lack of coordination, paperwork, etc.  Earlier in the book, on page 210, Newt says that the American health care system does not focus enough on incentivizing quality care, and he states that "we need a reimbursement model that takes into account the quality of the care delivered, not simply that it was delivered."  My impression is that Newt dislikes the fact that the reimbursement system pays for a bunch of treatments and doctor's visits, without really caring if those things are making people better.

Newt says that President Barack Obama acknowledges that there are "hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud" in the American health care system (Obama's words on page 218).  Newt does not believe, however, that President Obama has done enough to tackle the problem.

At the same time, on page 94, Newt criticizes Obamacare for cutting Medicare by half a trillion dollars to "pay for other aspects of the reform plan, like government subsidies and Medicaid expansion."  He says that, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, these cuts include "home health ($39 billion); hospitals ($131 billion); skilled nursing facilities ($22 billion); and Medicare Advantage benefits ($101 billion)."  Newt also states that the Mayo Clinic announced that "its Arizona facilities would stop seeing Medicare beneficiaries because the federal government does not pay the clinic enough to even cover its costs."

How do defenders of President Obama (or fact-checkers, or whatever) respond to these sorts of criticisms?  This article states the following (and remember that "ACA" stands for the Affordable Care Act, meaning Obamacare):

"So does it 'cut' Medicare by $500 billion?  Medicare spending will continue to grow, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), but ACA will slow that growth. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Health Foundation  over the next 10 years, the federal government will devote about $500 billion less to Medicare than it would have without ACA.  CMS and the Kaiser Family Foundation tell ABC News that there will be no benefit cuts to Medicare.  They say instead of Medicare’s being cut, there will be much more spending at the end of a 10-year window, but it does slow the rate of that growth...CMS says—and Kaiser agrees—that spending will be reduced by getting rid of fraud and ending overpayments to private insurance companies. It sends a message to those insurance companies: Operate more efficiently.  And instead of cuts, the CMS says they will be able to fund new benefits, including free preventive care and broader prescription coverage, including closing the 'doughnut hole' affecting seniors."

According to this article, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services----the same group that Newt cites as an authority----states the Obamacare slows down the rate of Medicare's growth, and that the savings (if you will) come from tackling fraud and overpayment to insurance companies rather than from cutting benefits to seniors.  Moreover, the CMS says that new benefits are included, such as preventative care and "broader prescription coverage" (the article's words).  Newt himself is an advocate of preventative care and Medicare covering prescription drugs because those prevent emergencies that cost the health care system a lot of money.  Is Obamacare already doing (or will it do) things that Newt thinks the government should be doing?

I think a good question is this: How can we get rid of unnecessary reimbursements, without also killing a lot of necessary reimbursements?  Newt says that the government should be more conscious about tackling Medicare fraud.  Remember the episode of The West Wing in which Democratic candidate for President Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) lauded Medicare for not having that big of a bureaucracy?  Newt addresses this argument (though he doesn't mention Santos) on page 220:

"So Medicaid has nearly three times the improper payment rate of all government.  That is one reason the Left can tout low administrative costs for Medicare and Medicaid: they simply write checks without effective oversight.  They pay more in fraud than they gain in lean administration."

I'll stop here.  By the way, check out this article on what the Obama Administration is doing about Medicare fraud.

Local Deities? Mystery Cults and Osiris and Isis. Soul and Spirit.

I have three items for my write-up today on Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.

1.  On page 156, Koester says that "The old Greek religion was a religion of city gods", in which gods were the patrons of cities.  He says on pages 164-165 that "None of these cults would ever claim to be a world religion since the belief that deities were bound to particular holy places was still very much alive."  But Koester narrates that people moved around and economics, politics, and science became increasingly universal, and so people were becoming dissatisfied with local deities.  While Koester notes that Hellenistic kingdoms "used the ancient city cults in the service of their more universal policies", he goes on to say that "this did not result in a new understanding of the gods as universal deities" (page 157).  But, according to Koester, philosophy brought about more of a concept of a universal religion.  And, within Stoicism, the naming of the planets coincided with this move towards universalism.  Koester states that "Zeus, once the ruler on Mount Olympus, was transformed into the planet 'Jupiter,' the radiant lord of heaven, as soon as he was identified with the Babylonian healer god Marduk and rediscovered as the brightest planet" (pages 157-158).

There are things about this scenario that puzzle me.  Did the old Greek religion seriously believe that (say) Zeus was confined to a city? 

2.  Koester talks about mystery cults.  He believes that their concepts go back to Hellenistic times, and he appears also to think that Paul echoes them in his emphasis on being united with Christ and gaining eternal life, or a new life of service to the deity.  At the same time, Koester notes differences between the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Christianity.  In Christianity, Jesus dies and rises again, whereas it is not said in the myth of Osiris that Osiris was resurrected, but Osiris after his death goes to the realm of the dead to rule, while his son takes charge of this world.

According to Koester, many turned to mystery religions to escape becoming "unconscious shadows after death", but the problem was that only the few who could afford to be initiated into the mystery could attain that.  Koester states that Christianity essentially democratized this hope, making it available to people without financial cost.

Koester makes interesting points about the goddess Isis.  For one, he says that the woman in Revelation 12 resembles Isis, which stood out to me, as one who was raised in a denomination that tried to disassociate from the "pagan" elements of the "world's" Christianity.  Second, according to Koester on page 189, Isis in Apuleius' Metamorphoses 11.5.1-3 is treated as the "one and only god" and "ruler of the the universe" (Koester's words).  As I look at the passage itself, there seems to be therein an acknowledgement that other gods exist, but there's also an affirmation that Isis is "The single form that fuses all gods and goddesses" (the passage's words).

3.  I know Christians who really wrestle to understand the difference between the soul and the spirit in the New Testament.  To be honest, I do not entirely know what the difference is, but the topic was touched upon in my latest reading of Koester's book.  On page 143, Koester says the following:

"It was possibly also [the Stoic philosopher] Posidonius who developed the trichotomic anthropology which later became widely disseminated: the human spirit has its origin in the sun, but from the intermediate world (the moon) it receives the soul which animates and maintains the body provided by the sublunar world.  At the point of death, the whole process is reversed; once the spirit has freed itself from the soul, it returns to its solar origin.  These concepts, once introduced into Stoic philosophy, reappear among later Stoic and other philosophers, including the Romans Cicero and Seneca..."

I wonder what the spirit was believed to provide, that the soul did not.

(UPDATE: I read somewhere, but I forget where, that the soul was thought to animate the body, whereas the spirit gave the person intelligence.  But I should be crisper on this, for there were also people in the ancient world who believed there was a rational part of the soul, indicating they thought that the soul related to intelligence.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sherman Hemsley; Christian Bale in Aurora

1.  As many of you know, Sherman Hemsley has passed away.  I was watching on the news yesterday about how he was a trailblazer when it came to African-Americans in television.  That's certainly cool, but, to be honest, I liked watching him because he was hilarious----with his strut and his characters' wise-cracks and put-downs.  I got to see him play a more sensitive role yesterday, however, as I watched his 1979 appearance in The Incredible Hulk (and he was a "Special Guest Star", probably because by that point he was well established in The Jeffersons).  There, he played a faithful friend of a mentally-ill guy who was aspiring to be a writer.

There is one scene that Sherman Hemsley did which especially stays with me.  He was playing Deacon Frye in Amen, and Deacon Frye found himself answering a call on the suicide hotline.  The call was from a teenage boy who was thinking of committing suicide, and Deacon Frye discouraged him from doing that because each day is a new day----and you don't know what that new day will bring.  Deacon Frye stayed on the phone all night with the caller, which was noteworthy for Deacon Frye, since his character was not exactly the most sensitive and compassionate person in the world.  But he's right: each day is a new day.

R.I.P., Sherman Hemsley.

2.  I applaud Christian Bale for visiting survivors and victims of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  Celebrities are not perfect.  That's certainly the case with Christian Bale!  But he recognized that he is admired by many people for his performance as Batman, and that there is a degree of responsibility that accompanies that.  And it is commendable that he honored that responsibility. 

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 7: Welfare Reform, Health Care

I have two items for my write-up today on Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.

1.  I actually liked Newt's discussion about welfare reform.  Newt refers to a proposal by Peter Ferrara, who was in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Ronald Reagan.

The proposal goes like this: Block grants would still be provided to the states, and states would guarantee a day's work assignment (paying the minimum wage) to everyone who reports to their local welfare office before 9:00 a.m.  According to Newt, "The welfare office would provide free daycare for participants' small children", and the children would "receive medical care and treatment when necessary" (page 190).  Moreover, those working a certain number of hours would receive a Medicaid voucher for private health insurance as well as housing assistance so they could purchase a home.  They would also receive the earned-income tax credit.  Newt also affirms that the disabled would be trained for some line of work.

This proposal contains elements that conservatives have mocked.  Newt himself has expressed disapproval of the earned-income tax credit, and (even in To Save America) he appears to be critical of giving tax "cuts" to people who do not pay taxes.  Conservatives, such as Connie Marshner, have been critical of guaranteed employment or a guaranteed national income.  (I base this on things Marshner says in William Martin's With God on Our Side.)

What I like about this proposal is that it would give welfare recipients work experience and job skills rather than setting welfare against work.  Moreover, the provision of day care and medical care for children is also important.  I think of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, in which a lady was working long-hours in a welfare-to-work program, leaving her children unattended, with the result that one child shot another child.  Free day care, hopefully, would prevent that kind of problem.

There are questions and concerns that I have about the proposal, though.  First of all, suppose there is a long line at the welfare office before 9:00 a.m. to get work?  Would this proposal be able to meet the needs of every one who wants a day's work, or would it leave out a lot of people?  Second, will there be enough companies that would want for extra bodies to come in to work for them?  Hopefully, enough companies would sign up for something like this.  I'm also a little leery about pushing the poor into private health insurance, for I tend to distrust private health insurance companies.

But I agree with the spirit of the proposal----to provide the poor with work.  At the same time, I'd be open to having some of the poor work in New Deal-like programs, refurbishing the countryside, for example.  That, in my opinion, is better than President Obama's stimulus program (if I understand it correctly), which gives money to big companies which do not necessarily hire the unemployed.

2.  Newt made a couple of statements about health care that stood out to me.

a.  On page 207, Newt states:

"...special-needs plans in Medicare Advantage actively compete to enroll and cover the sickest Medicare beneficiaries and stay in business by meeting their needs.  This is the alternative to forcing insurers to take high-cost patients for cut-rate premiums, which guarantees those patients will be unwanted and ultimately untreated."

I cannot evaluate this statement on account of my limited knowledge, but I have questions.  First of all, while Obamacare may require insurance companies to accept people with pre-existing conditions, is there anything that would prevent those companies from being stingy when it comes to paying for the care of those with the pre-existing conditions?  Second, would the free market take care of the sickest?  I can see the point that the sickest are potential consumers and so some health insurance companies would want to take advantage of that.  But the companies would probably have to charge high premiums because the sickest cost more to treat.  And, because the companies would probably want to make a profit, there's the possibility that they'd be stingy in terms of paying for treatment.

b.  On page 208, Newt notes (with disapproval): "The self-employed, small businesses, and certain organizations are legally prohibited from banding together to purchase health insurance."

If this is true, then it is an example of big government standing in the way of health care reform.  I do not know the rationale behind this legal prohibition, but I think that people should be able to band together to purchase health insurance.  The reason is that it's cheaper for groups (such as companies) to purchase health insurance than it is for individuals to do so. 

When George W. Bush was running for re-election in 2004, he said that allowing small businesses to band together to buy health insurance was a good idea (and see this article about George H.W. Bush's support for this idea).  But, as far as I know, he did not make that into policy.  Whether he even fought to do so, I don't know.  If only there were politicians who would work hard to make it policy.

Divine King; Slavery in Antiquity

I started Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age.  I have two items.

1.  In my last reading, Koester talked in a couple of places about the concept of a divine king.  According to Koester, Alexander the Great was treated as a god by Greek ambassadors while he was still alive.  Koester attributes this, not to Persian influence (since the Persians did not regard their kings as gods), but rather to "Greek ideas about the presence of the divine in extraordinary persons" (page 11).  Koester is also open to the possibility that "Egyptian ideas...played some additional role in the formation of the concept of the divine king" (page 11).  Koester sees a difference, however, between the Egyptian notion of a divine ruler and the Hellenistic idea.  On page 33, Koester states: "The Pharaoh...was divine simply because he was the Pharaoh, while 'the divinity of the Hellenistic ruler was based on his excellence' (A.D. Nock)" (page 33).  Koester traces the development of the Greek idea back to the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E., when the Greek polis was collapsing, and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon were saying that "only a divinely gifted individual would be able to reestablish peace, order, and prosperity" (page 33).

Hellenistic royal figures were also conflated with gods.  Ptolemy IV Philopator claimed to be descended from Dionysus, Queen Berenice was equated with Isis, and Seleucus I was worshiped as Zeus Nicator.  According to Koester, this conception continued in the Roman Imperial cult.

So Hellenism regarded the king as somewhat of a god while he was still alive.  But Koester also mentions other scenarios: members of the royal family were deified after they died, and a new temple and festival accompanied a new deity arising. 

I can only speculate as I try to put these pieces together, for there is much that I do not know about this issue.  Perhaps the king was considered to be indwelt by particular gods, and thus he was regarded as an incarnation.  But, after the king died, he was in the afterlife with other kings in whom a god dwelt.  Not all of those kings can be that particular god, right?  Consequently, they were each declared a god in their own right.  This is just my speculation, though.

2.  Koester talks at length about slavery.  On page 60, Koester distinguishes slavery in antiquity from the slavery that existed in the American South during the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries.  He says that slaves in antiquity had rights and privileges (i.e., property ownership), and that Roman emperors humanized slavery more by making the "abuse and killing of slaves...a punishable crime."  There were also slaves who could gain skills and education.  In addition, there were philosophical criticisms of slavery (i.e., by Sophists), government attempts to discourage slavery (i.e., Greeks in Egypt imposed high taxes on slave-owners), a depiction of slaves as human beings in literature and philosophy, and slave revolts.  Slaves along with free people were in mystery cults.  Regarding Christianity, some church fathers advocated the abolition of slavery, and "the manumission of a slave was considered to be a good work" (page 62).

But Koester does refer to a few opposite trends regarding slaves in antiquity, for he notes that "the slaves working on the large estates and in the mines were excluded from normal interaction with free citizens" (page 62).

Koester himself is not a Christian apologist.  But Christian apologists have used the issue of slavery in antiquity in two ways.  One way is to say that slavery was not that bad in antiquity, and so the New Testament passages that condone slavery are not as bad as we think.  Another way is to say that slavery was bad in antiquity, and so the early Christians were being revolutionary in their opposition to slavery, and thus Christianity was essential to an anti-slavery position coming into being.  (See here and here.)  Koester's position is that Christianity was continuing "the noblest traditions of Greek thought" (page 62).

Regarding the New Testament and slavery, granted, many slaves had rights in antiquity.  But did the New Testament permit slaves to exercise those rights?  My impression is "yes" and "no".  On the "yes" side, Paul in I Corinthians 7:21 appears to say that slaves should gain their freedom if possible.  On the "no" side, I Peter 2 tells slaves to endure masters who are harsh.  A professor of mine once suggested that this passage was telling slaves not to take legal action if they are abused by their masters, but to submit.  There may have been a variety of reasons for this: So Christians (who were marginalized) did not get reputations as troublemakers, or so that Christian slaves could win over their masters to Christ.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride on Touched by an Angel

Astronaut Sally Ride has passed on.  I could not find online the Touched by an Angel episode in which she appeared, but here's a summary of it, with pictures of Sally!

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 6: Economic Rules?

In my latest reading of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular Socialist Machine, Newt Gingrich argues that tax cuts stimulate the economy, encourage economic mobility, and increase revenue.  Newt looks at the Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush II tax cuts, and he also talks about how an increase in revenue from the capital gains tax corresponded with the capital gains tax cut, and how a decrease in the corporate tax rate has helped Europe economically.

Here are some of my reactions to this and other points in my latest reading of this book.

1.  I wrote in my post on Reagan's centennial that it's hard to know which narrative on the 80's is right, since both the Left and the Right present statistics to support their positions.  I'd say that the same is true regarding the Kennedy tax cuts: Whereas Newt argues that the Kennedy tax cuts increased revenue, economist Bruce Bartlett contends in his book Impostor that they did not exactly do that.  Granted, Bartlett says that the Kennedy tax cuts generated economic growth that made up for a lot of the lost revenue that they initially caused, but he does not think that they actually increased revenue----in terms of the government getting more money than it was getting before the Kennedy tax cuts.  (That's my recollection of Bartlett's argument, according to my understanding.)

So who's right?  You'd think that different sides would agree at least on what the data are.  Maybe it would be a good project sometime to compare the statistics that different sides present on a particular issue----such as "Did income increase during the 1980's, or did wages stagnate?"----and look at where the statistics are coming from.

2.  How easy is it to identify cause and effect in the economy?  Newt says that corporate tax cuts are helping the European economy, but (elsewhere) he argues that socialism inhibits Europe's economy.  Newt says that Bush II's tax cuts (which he deems good, yet inadequate) helped the economy, yet he also contends that regulations during Bush II's administration hindered the creation of jobs and led to the collapse of the housing bubble.  So there are economies that are good and bad, I guess.  How can one attribute what's good in the economy to tax cuts, and what's bad in the economy to government intervention?  Maybe the opposite is true!  Is there a way to tell?

3.  I have a hard time wrapping my head around certain economic rules.  For example, if you want to decrease inflation, then the standard wisdom is that the Federal Reserve can do so by increasing interest rates.  Why?   I think it's because less money is in circulation when interest rates are high, since people are reluctant to borrow money from the bank.  So inflation goes down when there is less money in circulation.  If that's the case, though, wouldn't tax cuts be inflationary, too, since that puts more money into the private sector?  Well, maybe not, if the rich just sit on their money!  But I thought the whole idea behind tax cuts was that the rich would not just sit on their money but would invest it, spend it, use it for job creation, etc.

Newt says that increasing government spending is inflationary.  I'm not entirely sure why this is so, but I have heard this claim from conservatives.  Why, then, was inflation low under Reagan, who increased government spending on defense?

As I said, the conventional wisdom is that you reduce inflation by increasing interest rates.  But, as Newt notes, the Carter years were a time when both interest rates and also inflation were high!  Newt says that Reagan bringing down inflation set the stage for interest rates to come down later, though, so perhaps low interest rates and low inflation can coincide somehow.

Boswell and His Critics

I finished John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, and I also read critiques of the book (see here).  If you want to study the issue further, I recommend Boswell's book and also the critiques, which are quite scholarly.  In this post, I'll talk about some of what I learned in reading the critiques, and, when appropriate, I will comment on what Boswell says in his book.

The ceremony that Boswell considers to be a same-sex union ceremony is called adelphopoiesis, which means "brother-making".  Essentially, Boswell's critics argue that the ceremony was making two people into brothers.  This sort of ceremony existed in the ancient world, and, while one of Boswell's critics acknowledges that some participants may have used this sort of brotherly union as an opportunity for homosexual sex, he does not believe that the union itself had anything to do with that.  Boswell argues that sibling language was used in the ancient world to describe sexual unions, and one of Boswell's critics agrees that "brother" in certain ancient literature appears in the context of homosexual eroticism.  But this critic does not think that means that "brother" always has that connotation.

Why would people form such unions in the ancient world?  One critic said that it was to reconcile enemies or to form alliances, and this critic appeals to language in the ceremonies about loyalty to support this point.  Some of it may have been to acknowledge or solidify a friendship, for critic Robin Darling Brown said that she and a female friend went to a Syrian Christian community in Turkey, and it offered to unite them in a ceremony in light of all they had been through together on their journeys.  According to Brown, this was the sort of ceremony that Boswell discusses in his book, and it had nothing to do with homosexuality. 

Brother-making ceremonies have occurred more in the East than in the West, and even some of Boswell's critics say that Boswell did well to expose to Westerners this little known (to Westerners) element of Eastern Christianity.  One critic says that the West suppressed the practice as it became more authoritarian and did not care for the existence of alternative sources of obligation.  I wonder if this addresses (on some level) a point that Boswell makes on page 197 of his book, in arguing that the ceremony concerned same-sex union rather than adoption: "The second technical problem is that adoption was never prohibited under Byzantine law, whereas the ceremony for same-sex union was ultimately prescribed, for reasons that remain unclear but probably had to do with the rise of hostility to everything homosexual".  Could the Byzantines have prohibited the practice for the same reason that the one critic says that the West suppressed it: to eliminate competing authorities?

One critic distinguished between the brother-making ceremonies and marriage ceremonies, noting that the brother-making ceremonies mention neither marriage nor things connected with marriage, such as cohabitation, the raising of children, property, etc.  The wikipedia article on adelphopoiesis (to which the site linking to articles critical of Boswell links), however, says the following: "Also see Allan Tulchin, 'Same-Sex Couples Creating Households in Old Regime France: The Uses of the Affrèrement.' in the Journal of Modern History: September 2007, which article demonstrates the ceremony of affrèrement in France joined unrelated same-gender couples in life long unions which raised family, held property jointly, and were in all respects the same as or equivalent to marriages in terms of law and social custom, as shown by parish records."

An argument that critic after critic made was that there would not have been same-sex union ceremonies conducted by the church in medieval Europe, for medieval Europe had rules against homosexual activity.  My impression of Boswell's belief on this is that he thinks that such laws were not enforced that much, indicating that they were not taken seriously.  One of the critics, Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, acknowledges that there were times in Christian Europe when homosexuality may have been tolerated.    

Boswell's use of primary sources got heavily criticized by Boswell's critics, as they accused him of mistranslation and taking passages out of context.  Many of their arguments are probably right.  One critic, however, said that Boswell translated a passage about Serge and Bacchus (two Christians) to mean that Serge and Bacchus were attached to one another, when the passage actually means that they would both receive a crown of glory in the afterlife.  The critic may be correct on this, but, as I read "The Passion of SS Serge and Bacchus" in Boswell's book (in English), I saw a huge chunk of text in which Serge misses Bacchus, and so the slain Bacchus appears to Serge to comfort him.  I do not think that all of that can be a mistranslation, for there is a reference to Psalm 132's passage about brother's dwelling in unity.  I would not say that means that Serge and Bacchus were a homosexual couple, but there did appear to be some attachment between them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 5

In my latest reading of Newt Gingrich's To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, two chapters that stood out to me were "Chapter Eight: The Corruption of Climate Science by the Secular-Socialist Machine", and "Chapter Nine: Corruption at the United Nations".

In Chapter 8, Newt talks about how there are believers in human-caused global warming who have sought to suppress debate, who have argued on the basis of non-scientific statements by environmental groups, and who have hyped up global warming in order to get more money in research grants.

In this post, I'm not going to thoroughly research Newt's charges and the responses to them by believers in human-made global warming.  Wikipedia's article here may give you a good start if you are inclined to read up on this, or if I decide to read up on it in the future.  I will, however, ask some questions.  First of all, Newt acknowledges that there is an ideological motivation behind those who say that there is human-caused global warming, a desire to shape policy.  Does this not imply that, notwithstanding whatever deceptive tactics they may use (assuming they even are using deceptive tactics), they truly believe that humans are causing global warming, for some reason?  Why should we assume that their concern is baseless?  Second, while there may be people who have non-scientific justifications for their position that humans are causing global warming, there are also climatologists who offer scientific justifications for this view.  Shouldn't their views be taken seriously, on some level?  

In Chapter 9, Newt talks about such issues as corruption in the UN's humanitarian, peacekeeping, and renovation projects; how certain UN groups have called for a redistribution of the world's wealth; how the UN Human Rights Council condemns the United States and Israel often but rarely criticizes other dictatorships; how the Human Rights Council has members that themselves are abusers of human rights; and how President Barack Obama's administration is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, for his administration supported some measures calling on governments to outlaw the defamation of religions, such as Islam (even though Newt acknowledges that it opposed other such measures).  You can read more about this issue here.

Newt says on page 137 that "until the UN drops its resistance to anti-corruption measures, the United States should work to minimize the organization's importance", and that "Whenever possible, we should operate through well-functioning bilateral and regional organizations outside the UN framework."

Newt probably has valid criticisms of the UN.  But I don't think that the UN is currently a danger to the U.S., and so I see no reason for us to withdraw from it.  That's just my opinion, based on what I know at the moment.  Newt talks about how the Human Rights Council condemns the U.S. and how elements of the UN desire for wealth to be redistributed, and how there is a desire among some within the Human Rights Council that governments ban the defamation of religion.  But, as far as I know, the UN has no power to make the U.S. do anything. 

I suppose, though, that the UN can be problematic in a couple of areas.  First, if we sign a UN treaty or an agreement, say, to ban the defamation of religion, then the UN's desires are becoming policy.  I wouldn't want for that to happen, for I believe that I should have the right to criticize any religion I want.  I hope that my country's leaders are on the same page on this.  Second, if we're involved in a peacekeeping mission, we should take heed that the UN's peacekeeping apparatus does not contain elements that are rooting against us and for our enemies.  I think of a right-wing tract I once read against the UN, which said that we fought the Korean War under the authority of a UN official who was a Communist!  I don't know if this was true, but it's something to be careful about.

Overall, I think that the UN can be a good place for us to listen to the concerns of other nations, even if the UN is not always good and fair (and, here's a newsflash: the same can be said about the U.S.!).

An Accountability Partner, or a Spouse?

One of the things that I read in my latest reading of John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe was the "Appendix of Translations", which contained the texts of ceremonies for heterosexual marriages, same-sex unions (according to Boswell), and adoption in Christian Europe.

So what was my impression of the ceremonies for same-sex unions?  Do I agree with Boswell that they actually were ceremonies for same-sex unions?  I'm unsure at the moment.  On the affirmative side, they do appear to be ceremonies that united two people for life.  On the negative side, they do not mention marriage (as far as I could see), and their emphasis is on Christian love and unity, spiritual growth, and salvation.  There's also a statement in a few of the ceremonies that the couple is not bound by nature (which I take to mean "brothers").  It's almost as if they are ceremonies for accountability partners rather than marriage ceremonies, but I don't want to project the twenty-first century evangelical sub-culture onto medieval Christianity. 

Could they be ceremonies that declare two Christians to be spiritual brothers?  Granted, Christians regarded all of their fellow believers as spiritual siblings, but perhaps there were times when one Christian felt a special bond with another Christian, and wanted to form a sort of mutual brotherhood.  I'm just guessing, for I have much to learn about medieval times.

Was there anything in the ceremonies for same-sex unions that gave an indication that there would be a sexual component to the relationship?  There was one passage that caught my eye.  On page 292, we find the following passage from a tenth-century ceremony for same-sex union: "Guide them in thy holy fear, grant them joy, that they may become united more in the spirit than in the flesh."  Does that imply that there was a union of the flesh within this relationship, a sexual union?

Tomorrow, I will be finishing up Boswell's book, and I will also discuss (in a general sense, perhaps) critiques of Boswell's works.  You can read the critiques in advance here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Irritability

At church this morning, the sermon was about irritability.  I could identify with that topic, since I myself can get quite irritable.  What I especially liked was my pastor's point that Jesus did not tell his disciples not to be irritable.  Rather, Jesus showed his disciples not to be irritable when Jesus welcomed the multitudes who were infringing on his and his disciples' time of rest. 

I suppose that it helps to have a role model.  I'm not sure if that always works, though, to tell you the truth.  I can admire how some people do not lose their tempers when things don't go their way, as well as those who are cheerful and giving.  But that doesn't mean that their example makes me perfect.  Perhaps it makes me a little better, but not perfect.  At some times, I'm quite irritable, and I find that the best thing for me and others is for me to be by myself. 

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 4: Health Care

In my latest reading of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Newt Gingrich critiques Obamacare and ACORN as well as argues (using examples) that big businesses support government regulation because that hinders their smaller competitors.  For the last point, I was especially intrigued by Newt's statement that Clarence Darrow (the famed criminal defense attorney and champion of the underdog) was a critic of the National Recovery Administration, which was part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, because Darrow thought that big business essentially wrote the NRA's codes.  See here for more information on this.

What I want to focus on in this post is health care.  Five points that Newt made especially stood out to me.  First, Newt says that Obamacare's tax on makers of drugs and medical equipment will make matters worse, for the businesses will simply pass on the cost of the tax to their consumers, resulting in higher health care costs.  Second, Newt notes that government "often tries to control costs by cutting Medicaid reimbursements to providers", and he says that "With 20 million Americans being pushed into Medicaid by the new law, this is an ominous sign of things to come" (page 95).  Third, Newt narrates that Democratic representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak demanded information on health insurance companies' business practices, and Newt sums up their implied message as "get on board with 'reform,' or we'll embarrass and investigate you until you do" (page 102).  Fourth, on page 116, Newt refers to Washington Examiner lobbying editor Timothy Carney's observation that "during the 2008 election cycle, the securities, health insurance, and pharmaceutical industries, and even many of the biggest oil companies, gave more money to Democrats than Republicans" (Newt's words on page 116).  And fifth, I talked recently about a provision of Obamacare that denies coverage to the purchase of over-the-counter medicine without a prescription (if I understand the provision correctly).  Newt appears to discuss this (or a similar) provision on page 119----the provision that (in his words) "prohibits the use of funds from Health Savings Accounts for over-the-counter medications."  The effect of this, Newt argues, is to "encourage Americans to buy expensive prescription drugs made by big drug companies."  Pharmaceuticals profit from Obamacare, Newt argues.

Here are some of my reactions to Newt's arguments:

1.  I was initially reluctant to read this book by Newt, since I had already read four other books that he wrote.  But I am actually liking this book because it is a well-documented and effective critique of President Barack Obama's policies.  I think that it's important to remember, however, that there's always another side to the story.

2.  What I am being further sensitized to as I read this book is how we are often being offered imperfect choices.  In terms of health care, the situation before Obamacare stank, but there are also provisions of Obamacare that stink, so what can we do?  In some cases, the provisions may be understandable, but they can have bad consequences.  For example, it's understandable that Obamacare has taxes, for money has to be raised to pay for it.  But Newt does well to argue that the taxes can make matters worse, as companies pass on the cost of the taxes to their consumers.  I hope, though, that Obamacare would help Americans to get their money back somehow, in the form of cheaper health care.  After all, taxes in Canada are higher than they are in the U.S. because of Canada's national health insurance system, but there are many Canadians who like that system because it takes care of their medical costs.

3.  Newt's concern that government health insurance tries to cut costs is a concern of mine, as well.  Granted, this is also the case with private health insurance, but the government doing it too makes me wonder if we should pursue other ways to bring down costs (i.e., tort reform) than putting more people into a government system.  At the same time, I have heard Canadians say that they may have to wait for certain treatments, but they do get treated----and in many cases they don't have to wait.  I know some who are on Medicaid, and they say that Medicaid is a pretty generous system.  And yet, when Medicaid eats up so much of states' budgets, there's continually a danger that it will be cut. Is it preferable for people to be at the mercy of this sort of system, or is there a better way: enable people to somehow get their hands on private health insurance that is affordable yet sufficient enough to meet their medical needs (if such insurance even exists or can exist)?

4.  Newt's book may sensitize me to the corruption and imperfections in the political system, on all sides.  At the same time, though, there are politicians who stand up to the health insurance industry, as he notes (albeit with disfavor).  Their strongarm tactics may be problematic, but I have to admire them for seeking to put to rest the insurance companies' obstructionist efforts to protect their profits by killing health care reform.  Moreover, Newt says that the insurance companies give more to Democrats, but perhaps that's because they fear the Democrats more than the Republicans and thus want the Democrats in their pockets.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Batman Story and Aurora, Colorado

I was watching ABC News last night, and it was talking about the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  One of the stories featured interviews with some who thought that Batman movies and comics appeal to people because of their moral ambiguity and can inspire acts like what occurred in Aurora.  After all, did not the shooter, James Eagen Holmes, tell police that he was the Joker?  Did he not booby-trap his apartment, thereby imitating the Joker, who set destructive booby-traps?

While I was watching this story, I thought about a documentary that I watched about Batman a couple of years ago, as I asked myself if the Batman stories indeed were morally ambiguous.  The documentary was comparing and contrasting Batman with the villains whom he fought.  According to the documentary, the similarity was that both had experienced pain.  Batman's parents were shot by a robber when he was a child, and he saw that happen.  And the villains had their own painful experiences.  (The part of the documentary that I watched did not provide details on this, but I think about the Joker's different stories in The Dark Knight about how he got his smile, or the Penguin in Batman Returns being abandoned by his parents when he was little.)  The difference, however, was this: Whereas the villains sought to inflict pain and chaos on society to collect some debt for the trauma that they experienced, Batman's pain led him to become a hero and to help others so that people would not have the same sort of trauma that he had.  As Joyce Meyer (who herself had traumatic experiences and struggled throughout her life with bitterness and resentment) said in a series, our painful experiences can make us bitter, or they can make us better.

I do not know what went through the mind of James Eagen Holmes when he shot people in a movie theater and booby-trapped his apartment.  From what I have read and heard, however, it seems to be that he felt powerless.  He graduated with high honors, yet he struggled to find a job.  He was quiet and reserved and thus he was left out of social cliques.  He entered a Ph.D. program in neuroscience, but he began to withdraw.  Did he shoot those people in the movie theater to assert power?  Did he booby-trap his apartment to give the middle-finger to the authorities of a society in which he felt powerless, a society that he did not think cared about his plight?  Possibly. 

Perhaps James Eagen Holmes could have learned the moral lesson from the Batman stories----that we can use our pain for constructive rather than destructive purposes.  But, then again, maybe that didn't happen for him because he went off the deep end.  In any case, I think we can all learn from this the lesson of how it is important to try to create a society that cares rather than a society that is cold.  There were stories of heroism at that theater, as people risked their lives to save others.  If only that sort of compassion characterized our society on a continual basis.

Newt Gingrich's To Save America 3

In my latest reading of To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, Newt Gingrich essentially portrays President Barack Obama as someone who heavy-handedly shoves his liberal agenda down the country's throat, as Obama employs signing statements to circumvent laws passed by Congress, punishes Fox News by calling on news organizations to "shun Fox" and refusing "to provide guests to FOX News Sunday" (Newt's words on page 80), has the EPA consider carbon emissions to be a pollutant right when the Congress is considering a climate change treaty, excludes Republicans when crafting a health care policy, etc.  This picture conflicts with how some on the Left see Obama----as a wimp who caves in to the Republicans.  Bruce Bartlett is not a leftist, but he talks here about how Obama agreed with the Republicans to extend all of the tax cuts (including the ones for the rich).  Does Obama roll over and allow Republicans to walk all over him, or does he use strong-arm tactics to ramrod his agenda down the country's throat?  Maybe it depends on the situation!

I think of Huey Long, who used strong-arm tactics to effect his agenda when he was the governor of Louisiana.  The thing is, so did his political opponents!  At least Huey was using his tactics to serve the people.  But I can understand Newt's concern that Obama has overstepped bounds.  If a President does this----and people on the Left and Right, as well as libertarians, made the case that George W. Bush and Richard Cheney did so as well----does this set a bad precedent?  I may like Obama getting things done, but what would prevent authorities from using their power for evil rather than for good?  Perhaps elections can serve as a check on this, but there are limits to that, for bureaucrats who abuse power are not subject to election.

I'd like to turn to another issue that Newt raises in this book.  On page 70, Newt says:

"One of the lawyers now working in the Department of Justice's security division is Jennifer Daskal, formerly of Human Rights Watch, who in 2006 campaigned for the UN Human Rights Committee to condemn the United States for its actions in 'the so-called 'war on terrorism.''  Daskal has also argued for closing Guantanamo and releasing those terrorists we cannot try in civilian courts, despite acknowledging 'these men may...join the battlefield to fight U.S. soldiers and our allies another day."

Newt here reminds me of Joe McCarthy and right-wingers in the 1940's-1960's, and I'm not necessarily saying this in a pejorative sense.  In the 1940's-1960's, there was concern that Communists or people who were not sufficiently committed to the security of America were in sensitive government positions and were influencing American policy.  That was a legitimate concern then, and I'd say that Newt does well to raise a similar concern now when it comes to people in the Obama Administration.  At the same time, I question any notion that people on the Left are rooting for our enemies and lack commitment to American security.  If you read Jennifer Daskal's remarks on releasing people from Guantanamo (see here), you'll see that she argues that holding people indefinitely does not keep the U.S. secure but rather costs the U.S. support and moral authority as well as further inflames her enemies.  Is she right on this?  That's a debate.  I certainly hope that there are also people with another point-of-view in Obama's Administration.  I don't think it's wrong, though, to question Guantanamo, especially since there's question that some of the people detained there are even terrorists (see here, but see also this article, which discusses why some are against trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts).

Incidentally, many who criticize Guantanamo and favor trying detainees in civilian courts have a similar concern to that of right-wing critics of Obama: that powerful interests overstepping bounds can set a bad precedent and lead to abuses of power.

Psalm 86

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 86.  I have four items.

1.  The date of this Psalm is difficult to ascertain.  On the one hand, some have posited that Psalm 86 is late because it brings together into an artistic tapestry different traditions that made their way into the Hebrew Bible.  It appears to draw from other Psalms, as well as the description of God's attributes in Numbers 14:18 and other passages.  On the other hand, some say that the Psalm cannot be too late, for it acknowledges the existence of other gods, whereas monotheism was arguably characteristic of later theology (i.e., in Second Isaiah, which was exilic).  But Psalm 86 still has a universalistic impulse, for it forecasts that all nations, which God made, will worship the LORD.  That shows that it may be late, but not too late, for one can argue that earlier theology in the Hebrew Bible tended to believe that it was acceptable for other nations to worship their own gods (Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Judges 11:24).  Or perhaps this Psalm indeed is late, and it believes that the gods of the other nations exist but are not as powerful or worthy of worship as the God of Israel.  I Corinthians 12:10, after all, regards the gods to whom the pagans sacrifice to be demons, which indicates that there was a notion as late as New Testament times that the pagan gods were real.

2.  Psalm 86 is by someone who identified himself as poor and needy.  The Psalm could be for an individual who is suffering, a king who feels especially vulnerable to domestic enemies, or the nation of Israel, which was the victim of foreign empires before, during, and after the exile.  I read an article by W. Eugene March, "Psalm 86: When Love Is Not Enough", which appeared in the Spring 1990 Austin Seminary Bulletin.   This article focused on the Psalmist's status as poor and needy.  The following passage especially stood out to me:

"The issue is the adequacy of God's steadfast love. Is God's love enough? What is God's love to the homeless or the hopeless? Does the gospel sound the same to the powerless as to the powerful? The issue is that life as it is experienced radically challenges the testimony that God's steadfast love is even pertinent, let alone sufficient. What can God's steadfast love mean for the marginalized? For the voiceless? For all those who not only can't make the system 'work' for them but in fact are 'worked over' in the course of life? The issue is one of theodicy: can there be divine love if there is apparently no justice? These questions are profound and difficult. Obviously, they will not be answered in the course of any one essay. But we in the church must attend to them nonetheless. But how? Where to begin?"

I found this to be a provocative passage for a variety of reasons: because it highlighted that it's difficult for some people to work the system in their favor, which shows (to me) why it's important for there to be advocacy groups; because it raises the question of how we can believe in a God who provides when there are so many people who lack; etc.  I wonder, though, if people who actually are the victims of poverty and injustice have as much difficulty believing in God, as do those who observe their problems from the outside.  I'm sure that there are plenty of victims who do have such difficulty, but I've also met homeless people and poor people who affirm to me their belief that God does provide.  I'm emphatically not saying this to make the point that their suffering is not all that bad and that outsiders believe their problems are worse than they actually are.  When people die of malnutrition, that is horrible, and there's no way to get around that.  But hope can be a powerful thing for people who look like they should have no reason to hope.

3.  Psalm 86:11 states (in the King James Version): "Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name."  Marvin Tate has some interesting thoughts on this verse in his Word commentary on Psalms 51-100:

"A reverent and obedient response to God involves a 'united heart' (i.e., 'mind' or 'will') toward God (Jer 32:39-41; Ezek 11:19-20).  The uncentered and divided will toward Yahweh is destructive (cf. Ps 12:3; 1 QH 4.14; James 1:8; 4:8).  There is a unity in Yahweh himself (a 'oneness') which is complemented by a 'oneness' in his people's response to him (cf. Deut 6:4-5; 10:12; Eph 4:1-6)...According to the Letter of James, 'the double-minded man, unstable in all his ways' will not receive anything from prayer.  Such people must purify their hearts and cleanse their hands if they are to draw near to God (James 4:8)."

I think that all of us have divided hearts in some capacity.  There are Christians who say, "We all sin, but you can tell that someone is a true believer if she hates her sin and does not want to do it", but I find this statement to be problematic, for why would a person sin if he or she did not want to do so, on some level?  So everyone wants to sin, and I'm sure there are plenty who both want to sin and also desire to be free from sin, which means that their desires are in conflict.  But how much does a person have to hate sin before she can assure herself that she is truly a Christian or that God will hear and answer her prayers?

Personally, at this stage of my spiritual journey, I don't play that kind of game.  I mean, what exactly is the point?  Rather, I come before God just as I am, with all of my flaws, and I leave the ball in God's court when it comes to whether or not God will hear and answer my prayer.  At the same time, I agree with Tate that wholeness and a centered life should be part of the equation.  An important aspect of my spiritual life is my belief that God does want to make me into a better person----more loving, kind, and at peace, and less harsh and impatient.  I view that as a destination, but I also view it as something that can be immediately applicable to my life, as I ask God each day to give me the strength to be good.  I don't believe that I have to be good in order to have a relationship with God, but I do maintain that being good is an important part of a spiritual life.

In Psalm 86, we do see the Psalmist's desire that God will unify his heart, and perhaps the Psalmist desired that because he felt that him becoming good would incline God to save him from his enemies.  At the same time, there are other elements of Psalm 86: God's mercy, faithfulness, and forgiveness, as well as the idea that God must teach the Psalmist, which (to me) implies that goodness is not something that one immediately attains but is a journey in which God teaches us.  Maybe the Psalmist's point is that he's not just praying to God so that he can be physically safe from his enemies, but that he also desires to be good and to walk in God's ways.

4.  Psalm 86:16 states: "O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me; give thy strength unto thy servant, and save the son of thine handmaid."

Some make a big deal about the Psalmist calling himself the son of God's handmaid.  Jimmy Swaggart regards the handmaid as the virgin Mary, but what I want to highlight is what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says in describing Rashi's interpretation:

"One must relate to God not only as an acquired servant, who may harbor some residual feelings of independence, but as a slave born into servitude, who is completely devoted to his master."  Some make the point that the slave born into slavery is more a part of the household than a slave who is bought.  And then there are those who contend that there really is no great significance in the Psalmist's reference to himself as a son of God's handmaid, for that is simply parallel to "thy servant" in the verse (cp. Psalm 116:16).

Personally-speaking, I would like some degree of independence.  I like what John MacArthur wrote (if my memory is correct) about identifying the will of God: we fulfill the instructions that God laid out for us, and (in other areas) we do what we want.  The implication seems to be that God has given us a degree of freedom and latitude.

But I can see value in being a servant of God----one who works to make this world as God would like it to be, which entails loving people, especially those in hard situations.  That gives life meaning, and it's also vital for the people who need help.  At a school that I attended, there was a debate about whether we work for God or with God.  I think that debate is pointless and meaningless (though there were conservatives who preferred "for God" because that implied that we were under God's authority).  In my opinion, what's important is doing our part to help this world to be more in accordance with God's standard of justice, love, and righteousness.

But do we do so as servants?  There appears to be a degree of complexity about this in the Bible.  Jesus in John 15:15 says that he calls his disciples friends rather than servants, for servants do not know what their master is doing.  At the same time, Jesus likens his followers to servants in such passages as Luke 17:10 and Luke 12:47-48.  Paul in Romans 8:15 affirms that the spirit has made us sons of God rather than servants who fear.  (UPDATE: Many translations, though, say that the point of Romans 8:15 is that we are not servants TO fear.)  But Paul did not hesitate to identify himself as a servant of Jesus Christ.  Maybe the idea is that we're servants, and yet we're more than that.  Essentially, we're God's children, with a job to do.

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