Saturday, May 31, 2008

How'd They Cover THAT?

Ever since I read Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement, I've been visiting his web site every now and then. One post there that has gotten a lot of responses is God’s Wrath: A Question. Basically, it concerns a Christian mother who wonders how to teach her son about God's command to kill Achan's entire family for the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:15, 25).

My response was this: "Maybe the dad can say that Achan’s family knew about the garment when Achan was hiding it, and didn’t tell anybody. I mean, that would be pretty bad too, considering it led to the death of Israelite soldiers."

Okay, actually it was a mom who raised the problem, but I'd just scanned that part. And my answer has problems, I admit, which may be why people did not respond to it (it certainly wasn't the length that was the problem!). The Hebrew Bible often presents collective punishment for the sin of an individual, and such a concept occurs elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern literature, particularly the Code of Hammurapi. So I doubt that the group is directly involved in the individual's sin when it is punished. It's just that the ancient Near East often punished groups because of what individual members did, for whatever reason.

So my response was problematic, but I figured it would satisfy a kid and give the parent a break (for a while).

McKnight's post caught my eye because I wonder how I will teach my kids about Christianity once I become a parent. I don't have a lot of answers, and my beliefs are continually in flux. Would I teach my kids that God is a trinity or a binity? That they should keep the Sabbath or do what they want on that day? And how would I justify things God does in the Bible that seem so, well, unfair!

I've also been trying to recall how my parents handled the problematic passages of Scripture. Actually, I think it was my mom who exposed me to the problem of the Canaanite massacre in the first place. "When I was a child," she recounted to young me, "I heard that the Israelites had to kill all of the Canaanites, including the children. And that bothered me. What did the children do?" But, if she tried to resolve the problem, I do not remember how she did so.

There was always the Armstrongite second chance doctrine to fall back on, the view that God will resurrect people and educate them in his ways after Christ sets up his kingdom. And so the Canaanites may have gotten killed, but they'd have an opportunity to know God once they're resurrected. Maybe the sub-text there was that this life doesn't matter a great deal, and so we shouldn't stress out about the Canaanites. I don't know.

Of course, we did learn stories that can raise similar problems. After all, didn't the flood wipe out innocent children? But I don't recall that problem being pointed out to me. All I remember hearing is that the world was wicked, Noah and his family were righteous, and so God spared Noah.

As far as the death penalty in the Torah went, that was pretty much justified to us. The death penalty was a way for society to keep order, to show without any equivocation that an act was wrong. And the American justice system certainly didn't look much better! All we had to do was watch that commercial against Michael Dukakis, in which prisoners went in one door and out another, only to rape and kill again. And those things happened in real life!

I know that, at some point, I heard the evangelical "cancer" explanation: "When there is a cancer, you have to get rid of it! Well, the Canaanites were a cancer, so they had to be thoroughly eliminated." But I don't think my parents used that.

Actually, I'm not sure if my parents even harped on the Canaanites issue that much. I know I read about it in the daily Bible reading that I had to do. But I think the way I resolved that was to say, "Well, what were the Israelites supposed to do? Adopt all the children? They were only being practical."

But, years later, I know that explanation doesn't work, because there were other things Israel could have done besides slaughtering the children. For the cities outside of Canaan, God told Israel to offer terms of peace to the inhabitants, killing only the males if the cities refused. The Israelites could take the women, children, and animals as booty (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). But they had to wipe out all of the people inside of Canaan, including the children. So there may be another issue here besides practicality.

When I was a kid and read about the slaughter of the Canaanites, perhaps I figured that it had to be right because God said so. Today, I wonder what to say about that, especially in light of what I said a few days ago about God being the good (see Me and Prayer). I still believe that God is the good, since God commands us to do good things. I can teach my children that! But how can I explain the times that God appears unfair? I can say, "Well, he's God. He can transgress his standards if he wishes." But, if God is not consistently good, is he trustworthy? The nature of God is not merely an abstract intellectual issue, for it can affect one's spiritual life!

Freedom and Health Care

After I wrote my recent post on Roots, Episode 4 (see Before the Storms Hit...), I thought about the whole issue of freedom. The slaves did not have freedom, for they were totally subject to the will of their master. They didn't have too many choices for themselves. I compared that to Communist societies, in which there is not much choice in terms of products. People have to get their food from the government. All sorts of things are run by the government, and they can't vote with their feet and buy from someplace else.

And that's why libertarians think that less government means more freedom. When the government keeps out, people have more choices. If there are enough consumers who want something, then the market will provide it. And competition ensures that the market will do things efficiently, since people can always vote with their feet and shop elsewhere. That's not true when there's a government monopoly.

But does it always work that way, and, if not, what am I missing? For example, in America, we have private health insurance companies, whereas the government gives insurance in a lot of other Western countries. How much of a choice do we really have? Insurance is helpful in case we have an emergency, or even in allowing us to maintain our health. But we often have to pay high premiums to get insurance that actually covers a lot. Shouldn't competition be driving down the cost, or ensuring that the companies cover more things (which are mutually contradictory, I know)?

Maybe there are two things that are going on. First, the insurance companies want to make a profit. That's why they don't pay for every single thing. They want money left over for their executives. Still, wouldn't offering lower premiums attract more customers and drive up the profits? That brings us to number two: the companies may not have enough money to cover all of the medical costs. After all, they need a lot of people paying premiums, and that doesn't happen when customers are going to different companies.

I'm reading David Jay Johnston's Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill), but it's not been as helpful as I'd like in discussing health care. Johnston says that HMOs converting from non-profit institutions to for-profit businesses costs the taxpayers a lot of money, but I'm not entirely certain how that works. I need background information. I wonder if there's a Health Care for Dummies book out there!

Hillary's a Flip-Flopping Hypocrite

The AP has a good story this morning, entitled, "'Last stand' for Clinton at Democratic meeting "(see here). I haven't been closely following the whole broo-ha-ha about the Michigan and Florida delegates, so I was happy that this article offered some background information.

A lot of you know the story. Florida and Michigan had primaries when they weren't supposed to, so the Democratic Party punished them by not counting their delegates. In deference to Party authority, the Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign there. But Hillary got her name on the ballot and won. So, in desperation as she loses to Obama, she is saying that those votes should be counted. She's even drawn a parallel between what the Democratic Party did and the uncounted votes in Florida during the controversial 2000 election.

Well, here's the interesting part: According to the story, Hillary "originally backed the punishments handed to Florida and Michigan." Was that when she was in the lead? Well, now that she's struggling, she's changed her tune. So she doesn't really care about the voters of Florida, as she claims. All she's interested in is her reputation or personal power. She wants to narrow the gap, or claim that she actually won the popular vote.

I probably won't vote for Obama, but I am so happy that Hillary's career is almost over. The boldness of her hypocrisy simply astounds me!

More on Armstrongism, Christmas

I've been informed this morning, by my mom and my Aunt C., that Armstrong didn't come up with that Santa Claus and Jesus argument--you know, the one that says kids who believe in Santa Claus and find out he's not real will then conclude that Jesus Christ is not real. I'll take their word for it, since Herbert Armstrong was a plagiarizer. I once read Armstrong's United States and Britain in Prophecy, and it read so much like an earlier book, J.H. Allen's Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright. But did Armstrong give Allen any credit? Nooooo!

But it was an honest mistake on my part. After all, how many Christians do you know who don't tell their kids that Santa Claus exists? I wouldn't be surprised if they're out there, but I don't remember too many of them from when I was a kid in the small town of Brazil, Indiana. In those days, virtually everyone around us kept Christmas. But we didn't, because we thought it was pagan. We kids were told at an early age that there is no Santa Claus. And we did not hesitate to express our beliefs to other kids, or those annoying adults who asked, "What did Santa bring you for Christmas?"

It's not hard to think that only the Armstrongites prominently attacked Christmas. But, then again, I guess there are also the Jehovah's Witnesses, who get their literature into a lot of people's hands (whether the recipients want it or not).

How do I feel about not having kept Christmas when I was a kid? I don't really care. We always got presents on our birthdays and the Feast of Tabernacles. Plus, we were allowed to participate in the Christmas festivities at school, which I can't say about the Jehovah's Witness kid, who had to sit in the library. (I don't think he stayed a Jehovah's Witness when he grew up). I suppose that those in my family who really wanted to fit in disliked being different. But part of me relished being right while the rest of the world was wrong (in my mind), or at least having something interesting to share with people. Plus, I got to observe the biblical command to avoid paganism. How many Christians can claim that? Well, then again, with the explosion of Wiccan and New Age religion nowadays, probably more than I think, but Brazil, Indiana was predominantly Protestant back then. It still is, to a large extent.

So those are my ramblings. I have some more posts to write for today, so stay tuned!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Armstrong on 7th Heaven?

Oh, I have one more thing to mention before I turn off my computer. I'm in the tenth season of 7th Heaven, and I just saw the Christmas episode, which is probably the most Christian episode of the whole series. On it, there's a character named Rose, who's engaged to Simon Camden. The family doesn't really care for Rose, for she is rather self-centered, narcissistic, and snooty. But, to be honest, I don't really hate her that much. In fact, part of me actually admires her. She knows that the Camdens don't like her, but that doesn't faze her a great deal. She has confidence in who she is. I mean, I freak out when anyone doesn't like me, but she manages to handle others' rejection of her with courtesy and poise. I also like her after learning today that she has a vulnerable side, but that's another story.

Anyway, Rose doesn't believe in Santa Claus or Jesus. And Eric Camden, the pastor father of the Camden family, comments about this to Sandy, a pregnant young lady who is thinking of becoming a Christian. Eric says, "You know, there are some who say that we shouldn't teach kids about Santa Claus, since, once kids find out that Santa Claus isn't real, they'll think that Jesus isn't real either. But I've not seen that happen, except, perhaps, for Rose."

That reminds me of a comment Herbert Armstrong made in his anti-Christmas tract, The Plain Truth about Christmas (a humble title, if I say so myself). He tells about a kid who finds out that Santa Claus is not real. The kid then says, "I'm going to look into this Jesus Christ business too."

7th Heaven had to get that spiel on Santa and Jesus Christ from Armstrong, either directly or indirectly. What's interesting is that Armstrongism manages to get propagated on a large scale via the Internet. The movement is in shambles. It has no charismatic leader to unite it. A lot of people have never even heard of Armstrong. And, yet, his message is still getting out. And I think it's because of the Internet.

As I've told you before, I'm part of a Christian dating site, where I participate in a Bible study and theology forum. There are occasions when people there post articles from Armstrong or his supporters, not knowing who Armstrong was or what he believed. One time, a woman posted an Armstrongite article against Easter, and another woman attacked her for it. "This site doesn't even believe in the trinity," she said. "You are hurting young Christians by posting an article from that site!" Well, not long thereafter, that same critical woman posted an Armstrongite article herself, one against evolution. And she didn't know she was being a hypocrite, for she didn't even realize that the article was Armstrongite.

So the Armstrong movement is collapsing, and yet it's still managing to get its message out. And, yet, the message is taken as an anonymous voice in the midst of a cacophony of numerous voices in Internet land. People may read Armstrongite ideas and even accept them, but I don't see them flocking to Armstrongite churches on a massive scale.

Before the Storms Hit...

Well, I'm supposed to be getting some thunderstorms tonight, and that may knock out my power, so I'll get my blog written as quickly as I can.

I'm watching episode 4 of Roots right now, the one in which Mike Brady sells Kizzy to the sinister Rifleman. This is the second time that I've seen this particular episode, and I feel disappointed this time around, as I was the first time that I saw it.

Oh, it's a masterpiece, so I'm not talking about its storyline or production. It's just that here's Kizzy, who's about to be sold to Mike Brady's "niece" (or, actually, his daughter, whom he had with the wife of his brother, Ben Cartwright). The niece/daughter is Sandy Duncan, her friend from childhood. And Kizzy is reluctant to go with her, because she wants to stay with her family. But Sandy Duncan tells her that Mike Brady and Kizzy's dad, John Amos, will be able to visit her, since Mike Brady will naturally see his beloved niece. Sandy promises to protect Kizzy, as the two of them are friends.

Well, Kizzy forges a paper pass for her boyfriend, a slave who tries to run away. And so Mike Brady decides to enforce order on his plantation by selling her to the Rifleman, who has his lustful eye on her. And Sandy Duncan watches Kizzy get separated from her parents, while doing nothing to stop it.

What's sad is this: Kizzy didn't really like the choice between living with Sandy Duncan and staying with her parents. But, then, something happens that makes that choice a little more attractive: Kizzy's sent to stay with someone who is not her friend, plus she'll never see her parents again. Do you think she wishes she had her old choice back?

Of course, one could say that the whole situation is tragic, all of it--the choice that Sandy Duncan offered, the forcible removal of Kizzy from her family, her rape at the hands of the Rifleman. That's what happens when one person owns another. Some choices appear better than others, but the whole system stinks, since the slave is totally at the mercy of a "master."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Me and Prayer

I want to expand on what I said in How Many Times Was I Saved?, and I will discuss my prayer life in the process.

Which salvation experience do I count as my true entrance into Christianity? I would say my second one, which occurred in my sophomore year of high school. That was when I began to experience genuine life changes. I tried from that point to follow God and pursue a path of love rather than selfishness.

But there were times of spiritual disorientation even after that point. At various points along the way, I was bored with the Bible, since I assumed that I knew it all. After all, I was aware of a lot of the stories, and the doctrines of penal substitution and justification by grace through faith alone were familiar to me. Plus, I knew that Christians are supposed to love God and their fellow human beings. So why did I have to read these things over and over? In my mind, I already had Christianity figured out. And yet, at the same time, I had a deep spiritual hunger that was not being satisfied. I wanted to feel good from the things of God, and it wasn't always happening. I often had a dead, bored feeling inside.

During high school and my first year at DePauw, my prayer life was rather sporadic. Sure, there were times when I prayed, but I didn't do it every single day. Maybe I'd pray because I had a test that was coming up, or I wanted God to protect me from being picked on at school, or I asked God to make a special girl notice me. Don't get me wrong, my prayers were not always "gimmee, gimmee, gimmee," for I did pray to God about his nature and goodness. I didn't know exactly how to do that, though--in a way that made me feel filled. In my high school years, it took the form of "I know that this is true about you, and I know that is true about you." My phraseology struck me as corny, so I was often reluctant to praise God for his nature.

During my first year at DePauw, I had good times with God. For many Sabbaths, I would go to DePauw's library at its opening time, read a Spurgeon sermon, and walk around the vacant second floor praying to God. But, again, I did not pray every single day. Plus, there were still times when Christianity made me feel empty or unfulfilled, since I thought that I knew it all.

My second year at DePauw was when I started praying every single day. At the beginning of the school year, I was reading Ellen G. White's Desire of Ages, a biography of Christ. She said that Christ could identify with me because he was once a human like I am, so I should feel free to approach him and share my deepest emotions. And so I did that. And it must have helped somewhat, since I continued to pray every single morning. But, still, I wanted to learn more and find inspiration, and, for some reason, the Bible and Christian books were not cutting it for me.

My prayers in those days had a number of components. Granted, "gimmee, gimmee, gimmee" was a big part of my prayer life, but I was also seeking knowledge, inspiration, and good, wholesome feelings. Other Christians were claiming that "God told them this," or "God told them that," and I wanted some of that as well: a sense that God knew my address. And my search for inspiration sometimes took weird turns. I one time sought it from talking to God about Daphne De Maurier's Rebecca. I needed to ground my prayer life in something inspiring, and I didn't exactly know what.

One Sabbath evening of my junior year, I felt a sudden desire to read the Bible. I picked up my Bible and a notebook, went to the library, got a private room, and started to read the Book of Jeremiah. Basically, I would read a chapter, write down what it was about, and talk to God about it. There were times in that experience when I broke down in tears! Jeremiah was a prophet who was real. He experienced anger and frustration and depression and disappointment with God and alienation from his fellow man, emotions that I too was feeling. And, yet, God assured him that he was with him and had a purpose for his life. And that was the origin of my weekly quiet time.

Scripture was also beginning to play a bigger role in my daily prayer time. During my sophomore year, I resolved to read a section of Scripture each day during my morning prayer, but I found that I was not interacting much with the Bible reading. I'd just read it and then talk about other things that I wanted to discuss. That changed during my senior year. One morning, I read a passage of Luke and realized that I did not understand it. Sure, I had read it over and over, and I could possibly recite it if called upon to do so. But it made no sense to me. So I asked for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and I suddenly began to think of interpretations that seemed sensible to me at the time. That was the origin of my daily quiet time.

Well, I took both of my quiet times with me to Harvard. Although my weekly quiet times at DePauw were very emotional and informative, they were not as good at Harvard. I was going through the prophets, and I felt as if I was learning the same thing over and over: God would destroy Israel for her sins, then God would restore Israel out of his love; and, in the process, God would glorify his name before the nations. But my daily quiet times were really good, at least for a while. I often felt like a wave of inspiration was flowing over me. I would approach the text, and it initially looked like a puzzle, but I'd be preaching in my bedroom before you knew it! I encountered stories that were unfamiliar to me, particularly in my reading of Deuteronomy-Nehemiah, so I was learning new things. I also felt the stories come alive, as God (or I) tied them to Christ's love for me, or used them to demonstrate the right way to live. Those were good quiet times!

But something happened. My quiet times started to get more intellectual. I didn't always identify with what the biblical authors were saying, but I found my attempt to understand their perspectives to be a fruitful endeavor. By that time, I no longer felt as if I understood everything about the Bible, or even most things, for that matter. I'd read biblical passages, and they looked enigmatic to me, so I'd read commentaries about them, or I'd struggle to understand them myself. I also sought to understand the Old Testament passages in their own literary contexts rather than subjecting them to Christian typology or allegory. The text appeared more mysterious to me that way, and so it interested me more. Right now, I have a hard time saying "God spoke to me." I can't even affirm that God spoke to me when I felt those waves of inspiration during my Harvard years! I just say that there are a number of ways to interpret the text, and I evaluate them, without claiming that I'm speaking for God in the process.

At this point, I don't experience too many inspiring moments during my quiet times, but my reading of Scripture is always interesting, for I am continually learning new things. At some points in my prayer journey, I focused almost exclusively on Scripture during my quiet times. Now, I focus on Scripture, but I also talk to God about my life, movies, shows, and politics. And inspiration sometimes comes to me through that process.

When I talk to God as I'm walking to a destination, my mind can easily turn to a downward, negative direction. Unfortunately, I grumble to God more than I should. But there are times when my mind manages to get outside of itself, as it focuses on theological, biblical, or ethical questions. Yesterday, as I was complaining to God, a thought occurred to me: "Look, you (James) may have a problem with God, but maybe you should see God as the good. I may be disappointed with God a lot, but I have no problem with the good. The good is how we should treat other people, and God embodies it. I may not live consistently according to goodness, but goodness does inspire me. I recognize its value. So, whenever I have issues with the Christian God, I should remember that God is the good. And I cannot disagree with goodness."

There are also times when my mind ties the Scripture I am reading to my problem. Yesterday, I was having feelings of hopelessness, when the thought occurred to me: This passage I'm reading on Jesus' resurrection may relate to how I am feeling. Jesus had hopelessness and death thrown at him, yet he managed to conquer it. Somehow, the resurrection relates to my inner struggles. Perhaps it possesses a cure!

Is this God? Is it me? I don't know. I'm reluctant to attribute any insight that I have to God, since it may be fallible. But I'd like to think that God is ministering to me in some fashion.

There are many times when I just don't know what to say to God, for my mind is blank! I have snags in my prayer life, as I do in many social encounters. But, so far, I find that just being with God and trying to say something can lead to my edification. Perhaps I should try being silent more, but I'm afraid that doing so will lead to total inactivity, which is a waste of time, and so I try to talk. During my Esther quiet times, I found that I had very little to say, so I said a lot of stupid things (mainly about animals I've had in the past). Right now, I try to avoid saying stupid things. But I attempt to say something insightful to God: about the text, about life, about anything. And, in many cases, just looking at the text again and again can yield new observations.

So that's the history of my prayer life, through thick and thin! God bless you!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At the Library

I'm at the public library right now, and I checked out four books:

1. David Jay Johnston, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill) (New York: Portfolio, 2007). This book is endorsed by Ralph Nader, but its inside jacket convinced me that it's worth the read. Consider this:

"Johnston cuts through the official version of events and shows how, under the guise of deregulation, a whole new set of regulations quietly went into effect--regulations that thwart competition, depress wages, and reward misconduct...A lot of people appear to be getting free lunches--but of course there's no such thing as a free lunch, and someone (you, the taxpayer) is picking up the bill."

One puzzle Johnston addresses is something I have wondered about: "How we ended up with the most expensive yet inefficient health-care system in the world."

Well, I'm not sure if I'd call our health care system "inefficient," but I wonder to what extent government intervention is driving up its costs. Is government suppressing competition somehow, to the delight of certain powerful profiteers?

2. Bruce Bartlett, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008). Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy advisor in the Reagan Administration, and he wrote a book called Impostor, which depicts our beloved current President as a big government liberal. I was initially reluctant to check out Wrong on Race because I thought it stated the obvious: that southern Democrats throughout American history supported racism, in the forms of slavery and segregation. But there's more to this book than that. It also reveals dirt on some of liberalism's most prominent heroes: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. I'm sick of liberals thinking I'm a racist because I vote Republican. I'd like to shove some things in their faces, for a change (or at least come up with some effective comebacks).

3. John Marks, Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind (New York: HarperCollins, 2008). While doing a story on the Left Behind series for 60 Minutes, John Marks was confronted by an evangelical couple with a couple of provocative questions: would he be left behind? If he were to die, would he go to heaven or hell? That motivated John to investigate the evangelical sub-culture. He was born again when he was sixteen, but he later abandoned the faith. Now, he's taking a fresh look at it.

I checked this book out because it reminded me somewhat of Carlene Cross's Fleeing Fundamentalism, a book that I loved. I enjoy books about people's search for values and meaning, wherever they may be heading in terms of their beliefs. In the case of John Marks, I wonder what it would be like for someone who had a bitter experience with conservative Christianity to revisit it after so many years. I've asked myself a similar question: should I participate in an evangelical small group after six years of not being in one? Would my experience be better? Would evangelicals look different to me because of any growth or change on my part? So I'm interested in Marks' perspective, as both a former participant and also a detached observer.

4. Dale Buss, Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2005). I've often wondered if I'd get along with Dr. James Dobson. On his radio program, he conveys a sense of warmth, compassion, wisdom, and empathy to his guests and listeners. At the same time, he doesn't exactly strike me as the most open-minded person in the world--someone who looks at both sides of the issues. And, at one point, a former associate of Dobson's, Gil Alexander-Moegerle, said that the dogmatic, closed-minded Dobson is the real one behind closed doors. So I wanted to read a biography about what Dr. Dobson is like, from someone who interviews a lot of people, not just Moegerle. As you probably notice, the book was published by a Christian company, Tyndale House Publishers. And, in the back, there is an advertisement for a discussion guide, which strikes me as, well, so evangelical. But the author writes for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, plus he was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1986 for his reporting on General Motors. So I expect a fairly well-balanced biography--one that may lean to the conservative side, even as it considers other perspectives.

These books may take me a while to finish, but I'll share any jewels that I find in my reading. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How Many Times Was I Saved?

I'm currently reading The 10 Commandments of Dating, by Ben Young and Dr. Samuel Adams (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999). Today, I want to engage its definition of a Christian.

The deal is this: Young and Adams say that Christians should marry only Christians. But how can you identify a true Christian, as opposed to someone who merely claims to be one? In answer to this question, Young and Adams offer the following criteria:

"Personal testimony. Someone who knows Jesus Christ will be able to point to a certain time in life when he or she personally trusted in Him as Lord and Savior. A Christian makes a conscious decision to repent of sin and to trust and follow Christ. A believer feels no fear or shame acknowledging and discussing this critical life foundation.

"Changed lifestyle. A Christian seeks to live according to the principles set forth in the Bible. Believers attend church and desire to hang out with other Christians. They seek to love others and bring them into a personal relationship with Christ. Christians value sexual purity and don't take advantage of their partners. They desire to study, pray, and apply the Scripture to their lives. They forgive others because they have received abundant forgiveness from God" (47-48).

The "certain time in life" part reminds me of something I heard from an Assemblies of God preacher: If you don't remember a specific time when you accepted Christ, then you aren't really saved.

Others are more open-minded. At DePauw, I met with the sponsor of Intervarsity on a weekly basis, and he said that people can encounter Christ in a variety of ways. Some become Christians in a single instant, while others come to know God over a longer period of time.

Personally, I have a hard time putting a whole lot of stock in those times that I said the sinner's prayer. I first did so when I was in elementary school. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I was reading my Good News Bible alone in my room, and the appendix talked about accepting Christ as one's personal Savior. I said the prayer that it suggested with tears in my eyes, but, unfortunately, it didn't lead to a changed life. Sure, I had my share of powerful religious feelings--a hunger for God, if you will. But I still talked back to my parents. I picked on kids who were younger than me. I used profanity in public. I felt a general disorientation in my life. And my religious feelings would come and go.

When I was a freshman in high school, for example, I worked at a Vacation Bible School during the summer. The speakers really inspired me to love God and live for him, so, when I returned home, I resolved to honor my father and mother (the commandment that gave me the biggest problems). My bedroom door had a list of the Ten Commandments on two big sheets of poster-board, and I etched a mark by the fifth one every day that I respected my parents (which I defined as not arguing with them, doing what they told me to do, or, when I felt especially generous, doing chores without them asking). Well, that didn't last long, let me tell you! I soon fell back into my usual spiritual aimlessness: having a hunger for God, but not being able to apply or maintain it with any consistency.

The next time I prayed the sinner's prayer was as a sophomore in high school. I was reading a number of spiritual books, and one I came across was John MacArthur's The Gospel According to Jesus. According to MacArthur, intellectual assent to Christian doctrine is not enough for salvation. Rather, saving faith includes surrender, commitment, and obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord. After all, did not Jesus say, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21 NRSV)?

After reading MacArthur, I was slightly afraid. I did not know if I would enter the Kingdom of Heaven, since I was not living the Christian life. And I looked at several of my flaws--my disrespect for my parents, my anger, my bad treatment of others--and I felt ashamed. Moreover, I really admired the commitment that MacArthur described, the sense of purpose that biblical characters got when they resolved to follow Jesus Christ. My soul felt empty, and I needed consistent nourishment. So I committed myself to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord.

I went to bed, and, the next morning, I felt more at peace. And more consistency emerged in my Christian walk. It took a while for my parents to be convinced, but they eventually noticed that I was different. My Grandma told a customer at her health food store that I was a "brand new person" (though she attributed that to a supplement I was taking, which she was also selling).

And, in those days, my life was like what Young and Adams describe. I felt a hunger for God, such that I read the Bible and Christian books at home and at school. I couldn't get enough! You may not believe me, but I actually enjoyed fellowship with other believers. My family didn't go to church on a weekly basis, but I went to a Christian youth group that met at my high school. The people were really nice, and I felt a lot of fulfillment as we shared our commitment to Christ with each other. I sought out opportunities to serve, particularly at my Key Club and my local food pantry.

As far as witnessing went, I somewhat did that. Often, I was defending Armstrongite doctrine (e.g., seventh-day Sabbath, holy days, post-mortem opportunities for salvation, etc.) to mainstream Christians. I mean, I was listening to Ron Dart sermons on personal evangelism, and those were the doctrinal items that he emphasized. I acknowledged that there were good Christians in non-Armstrongite circles, but I felt that Armstrongite doctrine was an important part of truly knowing God.

I also argued with atheists, boldly defended Christianity in my classes, and asked people about their relationship with God. I don't think I ever walked people through the sinner's prayer, but I was publicly identifying myself as a believer in Christ.

But things were not perfect. I was shy and introverted, so I had a hard time greeting people with a big Christian smile. In addition, I was still mad at this girl who had rejected me in the eighth grade, meaning that I had some forgiveness issues.

And obedience was becoming a burden. For example, take my issue of not greeting people first when I passed them in the hallway. Jesus says in Matthew 5:47, "And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" Was I disobeying Jesus by not being an extrovert? Or, for my issue of resentment against that one girl, Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone" (Matthew 18:15). Sure, she didn't go to my church, but she was a Christian, as were a lot of people in Brazil, Indiana. Did I have to approach her and tell her about my bitterness? Or ask her if she was mad at me (since, prior to my sophomore conversion experience, I could be pretty unkind to her)? Obedience to Christ as I understood it was becoming a burden, so I didn't completely do it. As a result, I felt guilty, as if God did not accept me.

And so I have a hard time putting a lot of stock in my second recitation of the sinner's prayer. I was committing myself to a set of rules, and I didn't really believe that God loved me.

The third time I said the sinner's prayer, I was a junior at DePauw University. As I said, I was meeting on a weekly basis with the sponsor of Intervarsity. He sensed that I knew a lot about the Bible, but, for some reason, I could not give him a clear answer when he asked me what the Gospel was. And so he systematically presented me with the doctrine of penal substitution. I already knew about Christ dying for people's sins, but I wasn't aware of the whole dilemma of reconciling God's justice with God's love, which he described to me.

He also answered a lot of my questions in a gentle and reasonable manner. I told him that I was an introvert, and he responded that he too was a wall-flower at parties, but that there are a number of ways to glorify God besides social extroversion (e.g., one could be a good student). He stressed that salvation is by grace through faith, not my own personal goodness. And he encouraged me to find my sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in God's love for me, not things like grades or popularity or other accomplishments. I walked out of my meetings with him feeling refreshed, as if God truly loved me.

But that didn't last long. For one, I had a hard time reconciling certain Bible passages with the idea of God's unconditional love. I mean, can I say that I'm truly saved, if I am disobedient? There are a number of Christian perspectives on that, but my reading of Scripture inclines in the "no" direction.

I was also rooting my identity in accomplishments. I made really good grades at DePauw, to the point that I graduated summa cum laude. Whether others liked me or not, I could point to my good grades to show myself and others that I was a winner. Plus, professors actually liked me in those days. But, at Harvard, I had a harder time distinguishing myself. It's easier to feel good about oneself as a result of what people think rather than what God thinks, since you can actually see the people. I can tell people who dislike me, "Well God loves me," and they may think that I'm seeking security in some imaginary friend. Plus, God loves everyone, so how does his love for me make me special?

I'll close with this: Christians act as if the moment one says the sinner's prayer is crucial. But can the sinner's prayer be more of a journey for some people? I am not fully persuaded by Christian notions of right and wrong, but I am becoming persuaded as time goes on. I do not fully feel as if God loves me unconditionally, but I am coming to feel that as I experience him more. Maybe faith and repentance occur over a lifetime for some people, as opposed to happening instantaneously once one mouths a few words.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

When people talk about the soldiers who have given their lives for freedom in America, I wish that they'd elaborate. I mean, Saddam Hussein didn't threaten to conquer the United States. Neither did Al Qaeda. They couldn't take us over and establish a Muslim dictatorship, right? Probably not, but they were able to disrupt American society in a number of ways. A nuclear missile in their hands is not an attractive prospect! So are our soldiers fighting for freedom in America? Well, they're fighting for our survival, and we need to be alive to enjoy freedom, so I guess, in a sense, that they are.

With certain other wars, I'm not too certain. How did Serbia affect us? Or Somalia? For these missions, we weren't really fighting for the freedom of Americans, but for the lives and freedom of others. So, in those cases, we are fighting for American values, but not really for the benefit of Americans themselves.

The necessity of our wars is continually debated. Was World War II necessary to protect American freedom? Yes, if you believe that Hitler stood a chance of taking over the United States (as occurred in that Star Trek episode with Joan Collins). No, if you think that Russia and Nazi Germany could have destroyed each other, without us intervening.

How about our wars in Korea and Vietnam? I guess we were fighting for American freedom, on some level. We didn't want Communism to expand, since eventually it could reach us. Our desire was to show the world that we were strong, not weak, for that could protect America better. But we lost Vietnam, and we're still around to tell the tale. The loss of all of those lives really served no purpose. It was unnecessary for our protection. And the South Vietnamese lost out because we did not win.

Are the current wars necessary? Again, that depends on whom you ask. Some think we are defeating Islamic extremists who can threaten America's safety. Others maintain that we're only making the Muslims madder, which imperils Americans even more.

Whether or not we are persuaded of the necessity of war, I hope that all of us can admire and respect those who gave their lives. I can say that Vietnam was a waste because we lost, but American servicemen still laid down their lives believing that they were contributing to freedom, of both Americans and also the people of Vietnam. In terms of the current war, I respect those who voluntarily go to Iraq and Afghanistan, for that demonstrates a selflessness that is beyond me.

War is debatable in many cases, but we should still honor those who gave their lives in it. They believed that they were fighting for a good cause. And perhaps, in a number of cases, they truly were.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ron Paul at Duke U., and Other Cool Stuff

I'm a member of the Facebook John Birch Society Freedom Campaign, and I received an awesome link that I want to share with you. It's a May 2 speech by Ron Paul to the Duke University College Republicans, but it also has some other cool stuff.

First, there's a woman who discusses her conversion from liberal Democrat to John Birch Society volunteer. She looks beyond the distinction between Republicans and Democrats and says that there are other threats to America's liberties.

Then, there's a video about America being a constitutional republic rather than a democracy. The video is excellent, and it is endorsed by Michael Munger, the chairman of the Duke University Political Science Department. In an illustration of the difference between a democracy and a republic, the narrator gives the scenario of a posse that captures someone who's on the run. In a democracy, the majority can vote to hang him, and he dies. In a republic, however, a sheriff upholds his rights and gives him a trial by jury. In essence, a republic is the rule of law, not majority tyranny. I always wondered why the Birch society has emphasized that America is not a democracy. This video cleared a lot of that up.

Then, a Republican congressional candidate and Duke alum talks about how Ron Paul has inspired him. He says that he reaches out to Republicans, yet he receives a lot of Democratic support as well.

Finally, Ron Paul speaks about liberty, inflation, the war, and fiscal responsibility. In one interesting line, he criticizes fiscal conservatives for cutting health insurance for children. He doesn't believe that the federal government should have a role in that, mind you, but he also doesn't think that it needs to begin there when looking for places to cut.


Stephen King's The Stand (1994 Miniseries)

I watched Stephen King's The Stand over the last few days. This is probably the fifth time that I've seen it.

My mom asked me if I notice something new each time that I watch it. I'm not sure if that's the case, but my reaction to certain scenes is not always the same.

The first few times that I watched The Stand, I loved Parts I and II, while Parts III and IV struck me as boring and lame. Now, I appreciate Parts III and IV a lot more.

When I first saw the miniseries, what went through my mind was Calvinism. At the time, I was absorbing the Calvinist doctrine of predestination through John MacArthur and Charles Spurgeon, and The Stand evoked that doctrine for me. Basically, the movie is about a plague that wipes out most of North America. God spares a few people, however, and those who survive are not necessarily better than those who die. Fran Goldsmith's father is a good man, yet he dies. Larry Underwood, by contrast, is a near-do-well who owes drug pushers money and only sees his mom when he wants something. Still, he lives. The people God spares are not necessarily better, but they become better because they're saved by God's grace.

Every time that I watch the miniseries, I identify with Harold Lauder. Harold is a nerd who loves the beautiful Fran Goldsmith, but Fran doesn't love him back. When they are the only two people in their town who survive, Harold thinks he stands a chance with her, until she falls for Stu Redman, who's played by Gary Sinise, before he became Lieutenant Dan. (You see a lot of this on The Stand. There's Rob Lowe, before he became Sam Seaborn; Laura San Giacomo, before she became Maya on Just Shoot Me; and Shawnee Smith, before she played on Becker. But there were also people on the miniseries who were big at the time. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a role as a street preacher, for example). Harold tries to project a positive attitude, yet he remains bitter and broods throughout the movie. He gets even angrier when he proposes a committee to get society moving again, only for Mother Abigail to reject him from being on it. At the end of Part III, he gets his revenge on the committee by blowing up its meeting house, killing and wounding many people.

I've never read The Stand from cover to cover, but the wikipedia article's discussion of Harold is rather illuminating: "Harold quickly becomes a respected and well thought of member of the Boulder Community. Often, his ideas are used to better the community. In a moment of clarity, Harold realizes that he truly is accepted and valued in this strange new world, and that he has the freedom to choose a new life for himself as a respected member of society. Unable to escape his past humiliations, however, he rejects his last chance at redemption and surrenders instead to his dreams of vengeance...Soon after this, Nadine Cross approaches him and reveals an in-depth knowledge of Harold’s insecurities, hatreds and fears. She hints at her own...Harold succumbs to Nadine’s seduction. He fulfills Flagg’s wishes and creates a bomb to destroy the Free Zone Committee."

That's interesting. I remember reading in the book that Harold was an outsider, but maybe that wasn't totally the case. Harold had a choice: He could be a productive and valued member of society, or he could remain trapped in his bitterness about the past. Bitterness can strangle us, keep us from enjoying life, and deprive us of a future, if we let it.

I often viewed Part IV as lame, but I've appreciated it more the last few times that I saw it. Part IV is where four of the good guys journey to Las Vegas to challenge Randall Flagg, a demon with his own set of survivors (only they're wicked). Stu breaks his leg on the trip and has to stay behind, and Larry is reluctant to leave him, even though it's God's will. "I'm sick of hearing about God!" Larry exclaims. Stu responds, "We all set out on this journey believing in Mother Abigail's God. If he wants to feed me, he'll send me food. If he wants to give me water, he'll send rain."

I liked this because it wasn't pretentious. He just said that God was the basis of what he did up to that point, so it makes sense to keep on following him. That's the way I am. For me, God makes life sensible and meaningful, so why stop believing now?

Elsewhere in the movie, there were other approaches to theodicy. In one scene on Part III, Fran has a dream in which Mother Abigail tells her that Stu (her boyfriend) will soon be leaving to confront Flagg. Fran is upset because she wants Stu to be there when she's having her baby. "Do you think Flagg will care about your baby if he takes over?" Mother Abigail asks. This is the "God's ways are reasonable and work well for people, so follow him" approach.

At the end of the movie, Fran's baby is born, and Fran weeps for all the empty baby beds in the hospital. "What about the other babies, the ones who died in the plague?" she asks. But Mother Abigail waxes poetic about a new beginning and the beauty of childbirth. This is the "There are good things in life, so there must be a God, despite the existence of evil" approach.

And then there is Mother Abigail praying to God about the plague. "I think you went a little too far this time," she says. That's the David and Jeremiah "Complaining to God about injustice" approach.

What also stood out to me in Part IV was the inner disintegration of evil. Several of Flagg's associates wanted to flee to South America, where there were "just plain folks," as opposed to a sinister embodiment of evil like Flagg. When three of the good guys go to Flagg's community to confront him, Flagg's cops arrest them at the border. The chief punches Ray Walston (a good guy) in the stomach, and Ray says to his companions, "They're unravelling. They're coming to an end. Can't you feel it!" Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction, and (in my opinion) that's what will happen at the end of days prior to Christ's return. We'll feel evil's unravelling as the time draws near.

At the same time, even evil had its good side. I liked it when the people on Flagg's side were picking up trash to rebuild Las Vegas, which was to become Flagg's headquarters, for that showed that they were taking pride in their community. Flagg's Number One man stood by Flagg until the end because Flagg gave him a chance, something no one else had done for him in his miserable life. And Flagg cracked down on drugs and prostitutes, to the dismay of several of his followers. (The chief of police, however, liked Flagg's stern law-and-order stance.)

Still, Flagg was evil. He wanted worship, dominance, and destruction of all who got in his way (and even those who didn't, such as Mother Abigail's community). At the end, he was going to punish two of the good guys by public dismemberment. Good thing God stopped him!

A touching scene in Part IV is when three of the good guys are in Flagg's prison. Flagg orders his Number One man to shoot Ray Walston because he wouldn't bow down to him. When that happens, the other two good guys clasp one another's hand through the prison bars in mutual support. That reminds me of a scene in Moses (with Ben Kingsley), in which Aaron puts his hand on Moses' shoulder as Moses tells Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" There's something beautiful about community.

So this miniseries is truly a faith-affirming movie that covers all sorts of issues. I definitely recommend it!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Shamgar vs. Deborah

Shamgar is a Samson-like character who appears in the Book of Judges. In Judges 3:31, we read that he "killed six hundred of the Philistines with an oxgoad [and] delivered Israel" (NRSV). Because Shamgar is not a Hebrew name, he was possibly a foreigner. So God may have used a non-Israelite to beat up on the Philistines and liberate his people.

But the Shamgar Administration was far from perfect. In her famous song, Deborah sings:

"In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways. The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel" (Judges 5:6-7).

According to Deborah, the streets were not safe in the days of Shamgar, but peace and prosperity arose when Deborah came to power.

I see at least two issues here:

1. Shamgar was an outsider who got his kicks out of beating up on the Philistines. But did he care about Israel as much as an Israelite would? Could he be as concerned about the hard work of governing Israel and maintaining peace within her borders? Maybe not.

This reminds me of what Paul talks about in I Corinthians 6:1-8. There, Paul criticizes the Corinthian Christians for taking one another to secular courts. As far as Paul was concerned, the church should settle disputes among Christians, not the non-Christian authorities. Paul wanted to keep Christian governance within the church family.

On the one hand, this makes sense. The church leadership would hopefully care for each party of a dispute, so it would arrive at a resolution that is loving for everyone. It wouldn't let a Christian rot in jail, unless it deems that the loving thing to do.

Moreover, an outsider may look at injustice within the church, but would he care enough to really do anything about it? There's a possibility that he'd be a detached observer, not someone with genuine concern.

On the other hand, when disputes are kept within the family, things can easily get swept under the rug. There are families that try to ignore child molestation within its ranks, so it's a good thing that we have outside institutions, such as child services. The same can also occur with churches, which can sweep injustice under the rug rather than actually dealing with it.

And so it's a good thing for families to settle issues as families, and yet that approach can also have a dark side.

2. Most of the evangelical sermons I've heard on Deborah have a similar theme: the men didn't step forward as leaders, so God used a woman (gasp!). After all, wasn't Barak a wimp when he asked Deborah to accompany him to battle? Male leadership must have been lacking at the time, or so the argument runs.

And there may be a point in such reasoning. When Isaiah 3:12 says, "My people--children are their oppressors, and women rule over them," I don't think the author is presenting an ideal situation, as far as he's concerned. So I can picture the author of Judges having a male chauvinist view on Deborah.

And, yet, the Shamgar vs. Deborah theme of Judges 5:6-7 serves as a counter-weight to such a proposition. Shamgar was about as alpha male as you could get, but his leadership was still deficient. Israel needed the nurturing, motherly hand of Deborah to give her order.

Yet, ironically, Deborah does male things. She fights battles, after all. She restores peace to Israel, making her a law-and-order sort of politician. Pundits often call the Republicans the "Daddy Party," and the Democrats the "Mommy Party." The "Daddy Party" protects the country from enemies and gets tough on criminals, whereas the "Mommy Party" is compassionate towards the poor, the needy, and everyone else. Some may call Deborah a Democrat because she is a mother to Israel. Yet, she does some "Daddy Party" things.

God can use outsiders to help his people, yet there is something special about insiders assisting his body in love. And God can go beyond a male patriarchal system, in a way that is not condescending to females.

More on "Is Ministry Fulfilling?"

I'd like to add some things to my Is Ministry Fulfilling? post. I said that the difference between my early and later ministries was that, in my later one, I was talking more about God, whereas, in my early one, I was just helping people. I think that my later one required me to do a lot of false advertising: I had to act as if I knew how to live my life and possessed the answers to people's problems. I mean, when you get up to teach a Bible study class, you have to have something to offer, right? In my early ministry, however, I didn't exactly have to be a sage. I just stocked food, collected money for good causes, and was friendly to those I met. That was my work for God and others. Those were the ways I glorified Christ.

Also, there wasn't a whole lot of formality in those early days. I used to go to the nursing home to read the Bible to elderly residents, and that was an enjoyable activity. But, now, if I want to do that with the local hospitals, I have to undergo all sorts of training. On one occasion, when I asked to visit the hospital residents, the hospital lady looked at me like she didn't know what I was talking about.

And the pressure wasn't as great when I was first doing ministry. I just sorted goods or visited people. When I took service jobs, however, I was required to come up with all these activities. I also had to be in charge on some occasions, and that was not fun. I prefer to participate in a structure that already exists, not design it all by myself.

Of course, I have grown up, and that may be why things are harder and people expect more out of me. But I wonder if there are opportunities to do the simple sort of ministry that I once did.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is Ministry Fulfilling?

I listened to a sermon by Jon Courson today. He pointed out that those who become slack in the ministry open themselves up to sin. It's similar to what I've heard from other preachers: David was not out with his men fighting the battles, so he made himself vulnerable to Bathsheba's temptation. He figured he could kick back and relax, and his idle hands turned out to be the devil's workshop. And so the lesson is that, day in and day out, we should keep up the work of God: quiet times, church attendance, witnessing, serving, small groups, etc., etc., etc. Courson also stated that the people who get "burnt out" from Christianity are those who do not do these things on a regular basis.

I once had a professor at DePauw who said that it's good to take a vacation from religion every once in a while. I've never totally taken his advice, but I have wondered sometimes what that would be like.

I said totally. I've prayed and read my Bible every single day for the past eleven years. But there were stretches of time in which I did not attend church. And, unless you count AA, I've not participated in a small group for six years.

I remember telling a Christian friend that I was thinking of taking a vacation from church. She was astonished. "You're taking a vacation from God?" she asked. No, I was taking a vacation from church. There's a difference.

I can understand that idle hands can become the devil's workshop. Who knows what people will do when they're bored? But I do not agree with Courson that the ones who become burnt out from Christianity are those who are not constantly on the go.

I'm reading a book right now entitled, So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore?, by Jake Colsen (a pseudonym). The main character is an associate pastor who is heavily involved in church activities, yet still feels unfulfilled.

I've varied in my attitude towards ministry over the years. In my early days as a Christian, it was fulfilling. I enjoyed helping the poor at my local food pantry, hanging up posters for my high school Christian group, participating in Key Club, and planting flowers at my local post office. Why? Well, I was reading all these Christian books saying that I should do good works, and I was looking for opportunities to do so. Through my activities, I got to express my Christian faith in a concrete manner. I was putting my faith to work, making God, my fellow Christians, and the people I helped happy.

I think I lost that spark during my Harvard years. I was President of the Harvard Divinity School's Christian fellowship, and I absolutely hated it! We had to put together this praise night to reach out to the broader HDS community, and I saw it as a big-time burden. In my final year at Harvard, I worked with my church, through preaching, teaching, and organizing a mentorship program. And I didn't feel overly fulfilled doing that, either.

What happened? I don't know. Was love for God a huge motivation during my Harvard years? I thought it was, but it may not have been. I wanted to impress Christian girls, or appear powerful, or give inspiring messages. And, when people did not "oooh" or "aaah" my efforts (as they did with those I envied), I was resentful. At Harvard, my messages were usually greeted with "Big deal! I already know that." (People didn't say so explicitly, but that's what I was picking up.) I also didn't like being pressured to give messages that made me uncomfortable. People wanted me to emphasize evangelism and community, and, because of my introversion, shyness, and social anxiety, I felt like a phony when I gave such sermons. How could I tell people to do things that I didn't do myself?

I also was trying to earn God's favor. Of course, I did that even when I enjoyed ministry, but one difference was this: When I was enjoying ministry, I wasn't really talking about God. I was simply helping others. And my focus wasn't really on myself, for I enjoyed working with and for others. When my ministry included talking about God, however, it became more difficult. How could I promote a God whose favor I had to earn? It wasn't that my fellow evangelicals believed this way, for they simply assumed that God loved them. But the God I encountered in the Bible was someone who punished, who made his favor conditional on obedience. Sure, he had a loving side, but I felt that my cheery evangelical acquaintances did not take seriously the less palatable passages of Scripture.

And so I was focused on myself, and I didn't really love God. And, to be honest, if I were to go back in time and do it all over again, I'm not sure what I could do differently. How do you choose a different state of mind? And have I really changed over the years, such that I would do things differently?

Bush Banning Oil Exploration?

NPR has a story today entitled, Bush Eyes Unprecedented Conservation Program. Here's some of what it says:

"The Bush administration is considering launching one of the biggest conservation programs in U.S. history. If implemented, President George W. Bush could, with the stroke of a pen, protect vast stretches of U.S. territorial waters from fishing, oil exploration and other forms of commercial development."

Look, we need oil. The prices are too high, as drivers very well know. And gas prices affect me, even though I don't drive, for they also impact the price of food and other items. Republicans want us to drill in Alaska, but liberals and environmentalists keep standing in the way. Now, President Bush is looking into banning oil exploration in certain areas. Ordinarily, Bush is a dependable conservative. Now, he's trying to garner a good legacy among environmentalists.

Bush is reminding me more of his dad as time goes on. And that is not a compliment.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Blunt and Gentle Christians Respond

Today, I'm going to report to you some of the answers I got to my question about blunt and gentle Christians. See When to Be Mean... for background information.

I asked questions of the blunt and the gentle Christians. To the blunt ones, I asked how they interpreted the biblical passages advocating gentleness. To the gentle ones, I inquired about why Jesus and Paul called people "fools." (That doesn't seem too gentle, does is?)

The Blunt Christian on Gentleness.

One of the blunt Christians said the following about love and gentleness:

"Is it hateful or attacking someone to point out flaws in someone's ideology or interpretation or assumption or statement? Nope!...As far as being loving, I think telling the Truth is the most loving thing one can do. Loving is not a mutual admiration society. It is honesty, integrity, uncompromising Truth."

"Well, we don't want to physically hurt anyone, even those we disagree with, and we don't wish harm on them. We shouldn't make fun or purposely try to hurt someone's feelings either. On the other hand, do these verses mean we should never play football because it could hurt someone? Or fire an employee b/c it could hurt his feelings? Or tell someone she's wrong b/c she might think it's accusatory? Or fight in battle with the military? Or work as a police officer and use force? I think the answer lies in common sense."

"I daresay that if someone wants to learn something and asks nicely, she will get the same in kind. When is directness ungentle? Gentleness is not weakness or apologetic in what it says. It is merely not cruel. I think directness is loving. It's a skill learned from necessity. Dealing with men, one must be simply direct."

"And I think the term racca means more along the line of dehumanizing and creating a rift between BIBLICAL Christians as an ongoing action--not just one time calling someone a fool. It carries the connotation of calling someone less than human--like the Nazis or Muslims do to the Jews. "

She's wrestling with the definition of gentleness, even as she says that being direct about the truth is a loving thing to do. She points out on another post that the Bible doesn't hesitate to call people false prophets. That's pretty direct! So, in her mind, she is just telling the truth when she calls liberalism a "mental illness."

The Gentle Christians on Jesus' Insults.

The gentle Christians said a variety of things about Jesus and Paul calling people "fools."

Here are some answers:

"When people on these boards insult others, the insulters are more like the Pharisees themselves than like Christ. If you can't tell the difference between mean-spirited insults and an attempt to lead another into Truth, then you should pray for discernment. If Jesus calls me a fool, I will listen. If a drunken bully calls me a fool, then he's the sort of person Jesus instructed us NOT to be, and I have no moral qualms about saying that that person is NOT a Christian."

"I think Jesus called it as He saw it. He was a teacher and He was the Son of God, He acted always under God's inspiration. If you look at the instances when he was angry or calling people names it was always in a spirit of teaching and never in a fit of jealousy, pride or for personal power. What we have on the board is different because there is not a spirit of teaching, only of bullying and trying to prove our beliefs are the only right beliefs and anyone who believes different is a fool. Jesus never behaved that way. He knew the Truth and spoke it. If Jesus called me a fool I would certainly take it under advisement and not be offended."

That was the most popular explanation: Jesus was Jesus, so he could call people "fools." We're not Jesus, however, so we shouldn't.

Sometimes, calling a person a fool can be an act of love and affirming the truth:

"It's all in the motive. If the motive is to correct, rebuke, etc. out of love, then it's okay. Likely whatever is said will not be in an insulting manner. Paul called the Galatians foolish not so he can feel superior to them, or to put them down, but to reassert the doctrine of salvation by faith alone."

But was Jesus being loving to the Pharisees when he called them "fools"? Wouldn't that turn them off more rather than making them open to what he had to say? Maybe he wasn't trying to get through to them:

"I think when Jesus called the Pharisees fools, it was likely more for the benefit of third-party observers than an attempt to get through to the Pharisees themselves. As you've said, when someone calls you a fool, they're not likely to get their point across. But those watching undoubtedly learned something from Jesus' judgment concerning the Pharisees."

Or perhaps Jesus being mean was the exception, not the rule, in his everyday behavior:

"For myself, I cannot see Jesus and the money changers in the temple as something that would be something for me to do very often as that was not the common manner in which Jesus dealt with situations. Many times, He kept silent or spoke a parable or gave information that led others to conclusions, then let them make their conclusions or decisions..."

James Argues with Himself...

I kind of equivocated on all this. In one breath, I said to the offended liberal:

"Here's another thought: the Pharisees were engaging in real moral evil. They were defrauding widows, being proud, etc. But you're not engaging in moral evil. You just have philosophical differences with people on this board. And that's not to minimize those differences, since each side takes its position with utmost seriousness. Policies involve issues of life-and-death. 'We must oppose abortion and save those babies!' one side says. 'These poor people will starve to death without their food stamps, so we have to stop the Republican cutbacks,' says another. Neither side deliberately wants to hurt someone else. Those are philosophical differences, and they should be addressed through tact and argument."

Yet, in another post, I was more hesitant to divorce morality and politics. The liberal said to me:

"Yes, Jesus was black-and-white on spirituality. I'm inclined to think he should be, because I believe that there is some ultimate Truth in spirituality, and Jesus was someone who knew what that Truth is. Politics is more about opinions than spiritual truth. It's not an absolute sort of thing. (But if Jesus had an opinion on political issues, his opinion would carry more weight with me than someone else's would.)"

And I replied:

"[D]ivorcing politics and religion is not always easy. In the time of Jesus, they often overlapped. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were political parties as well as religious sects. Also, they both had power, which is rather political. Jesus and John the Baptist criticized political authorities, as did the Old Testament prophets. According to some scholars (e.g., N.T. Wright), Jesus was making statements about how Israel should interact with Rome. Should it revolt, or turn the other cheek? And that's a political issue. So that's one reason you have people on the religious right (or left) who are so bold in attacking authorities or people with different political persuasions. 'We're only doing what Jesus did. He called Herod a fox!' they say."

So where am I now on this? I try to address arguments rather than personalities, and I believe in tact. Consequently, I don't know why Jesus and Paul called people "fools." Insults can turn people off, but they can also shake a person out of complacency and make him think. Maybe that's the reason they did it, I don't know. But I personally opt for gentleness. And, on the occasions that I get mad and scoff, "You dumb liberals!," I don't think I'm acting according to my higher nature.

But that's just my opinion.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When to Be Mean...

On a Christian dating site, a conservative woman told a liberal woman that liberalism is a mental illness. The liberal woman took that to mean she was being called mentally ill, so she accused the conservative woman of being un-Christlike. I posted the following:
It happens all the time on these boards. Person A puts Person B down, and Person B is offended, thinking that Person A isn't following Christ. Then, Person A says that he is following Christ because Christ put down people (e.g., the Pharisees).

The problem is that both sides have their points. On the one hand, the Bible tells us to love others, to be kind and gentle, to do unto others as we would have others to do unto us.

On the other hand, Jesus called the Pharisees "fools." He drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Paul referred to the Galatians as "foolish Galatians."

So how do you reconcile these things? Is there a time to be kind and gentle, and a time to be insulting? Can one be loving while putting a person down? When is putting a person down inappropriate? When has the line been crossed?

I'm not taking sides in these conflicts, nor (on the opposite end) am I acting as if I'm high, mighty, and above it all. This is something I truly wonder about.
I'll let you all think about this. Tomorrow, I'll tell you some of the answers I got! I'll keep the names and usernames anonymous, though.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Location in Judges 4

I studied Judges 4 for my weekly quiet time this last week. Technically, I'm finished with it, and I'll proceed onto Judges 5 this next Sabbath. But I'm struggling with an inward sense that my Judges 4 quiet time is somehow incomplete. I feel as if I observed details that are significant, but I can't specify how.

In my reading of Joshua and Judges, I have tried to be sensitive to geography--where are the places that the books mention? Well, geography appears to be significant in two areas:

1. Deborah is in the tribe of Ephraim, which is where she judges cases. But Jabin, king of Hazor, is located way up north, in the tribe of Naphtali. And Deborah sends a message to Barak, saying, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, 'Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun'" (v 6). Barak is a native of Naphtali, and he is to gather fellow Naphtalites, along with people from the neighboring tribe of Zebulun, to defeat a king whose headquarters are in Naphtali.

Something's significant about this. God calls someone who is in a particular area to deal with a problem that is in his area, yet has an impact on all of Israel. I guess the lesson is that God is practical, or maybe that we should be concerned about what happens in our location. Or perhaps we learn that, sometimes, the main qualification a person may have for a divinely-appointed task is being in the right place.

Another bizarre feature is that Judges 5 presents the Israelite war against Jabin and Sisera as broad-based: all sorts of Israelites participated, not only Zebulun and Naphtali. And Deborah criticizes Reuben, Dan, Gilead, and Asher for not getting involved in the war. Why would she do that, if she told Barak to gather together Naphtali and Zebulun, as Judges 4 narrates?

2. We see Heber, who is a Kenite. The Kenites were the tribe of Hobab/Jethro/Reuel (depending on the tradition), who was Moses' father-in-law. Well, Heber left his fellow Kenites, who were primarily in the South (see I Samuel 27:10; 30:29), to settle in the far North, the Naphtali area. There, he maintained good relations with Jabin, the oppressor of Israel. Still, Heber's wife, Jael, killed Sisera, the commander of Hazor.

Something's significant here. We have dual loyalty. Heber is a friend of Jabin, which is why Sisera feels safe when he enters into Jael's tent. Yet, the Kenites and the Israelites go way back. Jethro gave Moses a lot of help, after all! And so it's not really a surprise that Jael kills Sisera. Was all this part of a divine plan?

Yet, something tells me that Heber was wrong to leave the other Kenites behind. He forsook the people who helped Moses and chose instead to go his own way. Was this right, especially when he found himself hooking up with scum (Jabin)? Of course, then again, it's understandable that he formed some alliance with Jabin. He probably wanted to be left alone, not oppressed like the Israelites.

Maybe Judges 4 is trying to make some point about Heber's departure, or maybe not. It could be including that detail just because there were Kenites in the North and the South, and it wanted to explain how that came to be. But I sense that there's something deeper, something I'm missing.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Obama on Faith, Race

I have some more quotes from Obama's Audacity of Hope:

More on Faith.

"Solving [society's] problems will require changes in government policy; it will also require changes in hearts and minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturer's lobby. But I also believe that when a gangbanger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we have a problem of morality. Not only do we need to punish that man for his crime, but we need to acknowledge that there's a hole in his heart, one that government programs alone may not be able to repair" (215).

I wish he stuck with this line instead of saying that people cling to faith because the government doesn't help the economy. Money and government programs don't fill every soul. Contra Karl Marx, religion is not a product of poverty, for it meets needs that money cannot satisfy.

On Race.

"I maintain, however, that in today's America such prejudices [of whites towards African-Americans] are far more loosely held than they once were--and hence are subject to refutation. A black teenage boy walking down the street may elicit fear in a white couple, but if he turns out to be their son's friend from school he may be invited over for dinner. A black man may have trouble catching a cab late at night, but if he is a capable software engineer Microsoft will have no qualms about hiring him" (236).

I think a lot of people are initially suspicious of "the other," but they let their guard down once they realize that those different from them are human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. That's why my schools (except for the Jewish ones) emphasized diversity: We need to get to know one another, since otherwise we are segregated, and people who are segregated regard each other with suspicion. So African-Americans shouldn't just eat with African-Americans, and Asians shouldn't just eat with Asians, and white sorority girls shouldn't just eat with white sorority girls.

I never really liked my schools' attempts to force diversity down people's throats. I'd like to sit with someone from another race because I like that person and want to learn more about him or her. I don't want to do so because some sanctimonious, politically-correct authorities tell me that it is my duty.

Like often associates with like, since people usually prefer to be around those they don't have to explain everything to. Personally, I've often gotten along with minorities better than I do with white people. Some of that may relate to a common feeling of being out of place. I'm not saying that there was never tension, but, by and large, I found them to be more open and accepting of me.

The part about Microsoft reminds me of what a libertarian professor of mine said in a class about Atlas Shrugged, the Ayn Rand classic. It was Martin Luther King day, and he was saying that discrimination can hurt a business, since it shuts out the productive minorities who can contribute to the company. I can see his point. But I was still skeptical when I first heard it, since I could picture whites in the 1950's South not frequenting a business because it hires minorities. Heck, I can envision that in parts of America today!

"That simple notion--that one isn't confined in one's dreams--is so central to our understanding of America that it seems almost commonplace. But in black America, the idea represents a radical break from the past, a severing of psychological shackles of slavery and Jim Crow. It is perhaps the most important legacy of the civil rights movement, a gift from those leaders like John Lewis and Rosa Parks who marched, rallied, and endured threats, arrests, and beatings to widen the doors of freedom. And it is also a testament to that generation of African American mothers and fathers whose heroism was less dramatic but no less important: parents who worked all their lives in jobs that were too small for them, without complain, scrimping and saving to buy a small home; parents who did without so that their children could take dance classes or the school-sponsored field trip; parents who coached Little League games and baked birthday cakes and badgered teachers to make sure their children weren't tracked into the less-challenging programs; parents who dragged their children to church every Sunday, whupped their children's behinds when they got out of line, and looked out for all the children on the block during long summer days and into the night. Parents who pushed their children to achieve and fortified them with a love that could withstand whatever the larger society might throw at them. It is through this quintessentially American path of upward mobility that the black middle class has grown fourfold in a generation, and that the black poverty rate was cut in half" (241-242).

I'll let this quote speak for itself. I found it very inspiring! We succeed through diligence and responsibility, yet we are rarely alone when we do so. We have a lot of people to thank!

"When laid off from their jobs or confronted with a family emergency, blacks and Latinos have less savings to draw on, and parents are less able to lend their children a helping hand" (243).

When I was at Harvard, I had to attend a few sessions on racism, sexism, and homophobia. I hated those sessions because I was the only straight, white male in the group, except for the facilitator, who was your typical white liberal with a guilt complex. They talked about their problems, but I felt that I had problems too. After all, like the women and the black and the homosexual in the group, I too had experienced rejection and mockery and disregard for my opinion and suspicious looks from other people. But they didn't matter at Harvard because I wasn't a minority. (Well, I was a conservative at Harvard, which made me a minority there, but you know what I mean.)

I had a hard time grasping the idea of power. The unit was entitled "Power and Responsibility," and its point was that I have all this power because I'm a straight, white male. Women and minorities, however, are supposedly powerless.

I still don't understand how exactly I am powerful, but someone in the group said something that clarified things a little. She said that powerful people have someone to call when they get in trouble. Powerless people, however, do not.

And I acknowledge that, in that sense, I have some "power." Whenever I'm in trouble, my family has the resources to help me out, at least temporarily. I can't imagine what it would be like if it didn't.

So these are my musings for the day. Enjoy the beautiful weather, depending on where you are!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Community Called Atonement

I recently read Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abington, 2007). It gave me food for thought on three issues: the Kingdom of God, the image of God, and the role of Jesus' resurrection in the atonement.

The Kingdom of God.

McKnight defines the Kingdom of God as "what God is doing in this world through the community of faith for the redemptive plans of God--including what God is doing in you and me" (9, emphasis his). McKnight believes that the church plays an important role in God's transformation of all creation. It does so in that it models a just society that values all people, rich and poor, thereby influencing the broader culture.

I've encountered this line of thinking from a variety of sources: N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, and Brian McLaren. And it puzzles me, to be honest with you. Isn't that post-millennialism, the idea that the church will transform society for the better, and then Christ will come? My background is more pre-millennial, which says that things will get worse and worse prior to Christ's return (e.g., Matthew 24:12; II Timothy 3:13). In my own reading of Scripture, Christ will interrupt a world that's on a downward course. He won't be coming to one that's getting better and better under the influence of the church.

That's not to say that the church is not an alternative society, or that it shouldn't be salt and light in the world. Of course it should, for Jesus told it to be that (Matthew 5:13-16). And perhaps the church is also a microcosm of God's coming kingdom. Years ago, when I read the Gospel of Luke, I noticed its hope that the Messiah would soon come and vindicate the poor. What I thought that meant was that Jesus viewed his kingdom as imminent (Albert Schweitzer style): he was assuring the poor that their liberation was nigh, for he'd soon come and set up a kingdom that would topple the rich and powerful while exalting the lowly. As a believer, I had a problem with such an interpretation, since that didn't happen. Two thousand years later, the rich and powerful are still oppressing the poor and the lowly. But, in my mind, that was the best reading of the text.

Part of me considered another proposal, however: Perhaps Luke's Jesus expects the poor to find their relief and exaltation in the church. In Luke's other work, Acts, the disciples hold their goods in common (Acts 2:44; 4:32), and deacons help the poor widows (Acts 6). Indeed, the church was a place where the poor could be fed, where the first put themselves last so that the last could be first. But I recoiled from that interpretation because it didn't seem like a large societal transformation, the type that Jesus seemed to predict. Plus, I have a hard time equating the church with the just and egalitarian Kingdom of God, since it has a lot of cliques, social snobbery, and apathy about other people's well-being.

But I like what McKnight says: "[E]ternity is the society created by God around Jesus Christ wherein God's people enjoy union with God and communion with one another, in a place where everything works as it did in Eden...Atonement is the work of God to create and ready his people for just these things: union with God and communion with others in a place of perfection, with a society of justice and peace and above all worship of the Lamb of God on the throne" (27). For me, the church should be a place that prepares Christians for the paradise that Christ will one day create. And, since we are citizens of that coming kingdom, we promote and act on the values that will one day predominate in God's recreated world.

The Image of God.

Believe it or not, this issue has always stumped me. Are we created in God's image or not? I mean, God made Adam in the divine image, but Seth was in the image of his father, Adam (Genesis 5:3). I've heard this verse tied to the corruption of humanity after the Fall. So was Seth not in God's image?

At the same time, Genesis 9:6 says, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind" (NRSV). James 3:9 has, "With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." And so I guess that everyone is made in God's image. That's why we shouldn't kill or curse another human being.

And, yet, Colossians 3:10 says that Christians are becoming renewed in knowledge after the image of God, as they put on the new man. They are coming to resemble Christ more and more in their attributes, and Christ is the true image of God (II Corinthians 4:4). So not everyone is in God's image, since not everyone is a moral Christian like Christ, right?

But McKnight cleared up my dilemma. According to him, we are all made in God's image, but that image had becoming defiled. It's still there, but it's defaced. We are cracked eikons (the Greek word for image). And atonement is God's way of repairing his image in us. So we're in God's image, but not fully, and that's what atonement is meant to correct.

Sounds pretty obvious, I know. But I'm still puzzled by one thing: Does Paul believe that women are made in God's image, or not (see I Corinthians 11:7)?

Resurrection and Atonement.

Evangelicals often emphasize the role of Christ's death in atonement, since that's what paid the penalty for sin (Romans 3:25). But the New Testament says that Christ's resurrection plays a big role in our justification before God:

Romans 4:25: "who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."

Romans 10:9: "because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

I Corinthians 15:17: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

My question has always been: Suppose Christ hadn't risen from the dead? Wouldn't we still be justified, since his death paid our sin-debt?

On some level, McKnight addresses this by redefining atonement. He doesn't just treat atonement as God's forgiveness of sin. Rather, he views it more broadly as God's recreation of humanity, which reconciles people with himself and one another within the context of a body (the church).

But, even if I were to see atonement primarily in terms of forgiveness (a typical Protestant approach), I can understand (somewhat) why the resurrection is so important. The resurrection is my guarantee of a new life, both now and also in the hereafter. Christ could've paid my sin-debt, but how's that help me if I cannot become a new man before God, or if I have no hope beyond the grave? And Christ's resurrection was necessary for both, for Christ is the representative of the human race (Romans 5:14ff.). His goal is to do right what we did wrong (Sam Beckett style, only without the quantum leaps), and also to incorporate us into his recreation of the human race. He needs to be resurrected for us to be resurrected, in terms of becoming new creations and also surviving a literal death (Romans 6; I Corinthians 15). Otherwise, we still suffer the penalty for our sins (death).

This doesn't answer my question totally, since I wonder if the resurrection was necessary to pay my sin debt. The Bible seems to say that it was! Still, despite my lack of a full understanding, I have an appreciation for Christ pulling us out of the clutches of sin and death, which were holding us down. And he did this through his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Praise God!

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