Monday, June 30, 2008

ACTS in Prayer

I'm reading Victor Kuligin's Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said. On some level, it's like Hard Sayings of Jesus and Hard Sayings of the New Testament: it tries to explain away Jesus' really difficult sayings (e.g., hate your parents, cut off your arm, pluck out your eyes, etc.). At the same time, after I read Kuligin's explanations, my reaction usually was: "So that's what Jesus wants us to do? That sounds so hard! I don't want to do that." Living a Christian life can be pretty challenging, even if we don't take all of Jesus' commands literally.

Kuligin really convicted me on prayer. So much of my prayer life consists of grumbling against God. Of course, I meditate on Scripture too, and there are times when God uses that to transform my attitude. For example, I was recently walking in the blistering heat, and I was complaining to God about my sad, sorry life. Then, my mind turned to Luke 9:49-50, in which the disciples tell Jesus about someone who was casting out demons in Jesus' name. That man was not a part of their group, so they were wondering whether or not to stop him. Jesus responded, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you" (NRSV).

Jesus wanted people to be free from oppression. Being inhabited by a demon is not fun, I'm sure! I learned that from a Touched by an Angel episode, "The Occupant." It's even scarier on The Exorcist! And Jesus welcomed someone who joined him in releasing people from all that. The disciples were thinking about their group: who was on the inside, and who was on the outside. Jesus was thinking about other people. He wanted them to be free--clothed and in their right minds (Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35).

I'm glad God used that passage to communicate Jesus' character to me. But my prayers are still pretty selfish! I can glorify Jesus now that I see something glorious about him, but a huge part of me sees my quiet times as a form of self-medication, or as a way to become smarter, or as a means of entertainment.

And there's nothing wrong with that, since the Psalmist expressed pleasure in studying God's word. But I shouldn't see myself solely as a God-consumer. "God, I'm dissatisfied with you because my life is this way! Why'd you allow me to be born with Asperger's? I'm putting down 'dissatisfied' on my customer service survey!" "Okay, I'm here, Lord. Feed me, feed me, feed me! I want to be inspired! Some entertainment will help, too. And I'd also like some good ideas for my blog. Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!"

In his prayer life, Kuligin uses an approach called ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. He states:

"ACTS...helps me to admit I am a sinner. I do not come to God with demands, calling him to task when he does not respond in the way I have predetermined. Instead, I come recognizing I am a beggar in need of mercy, grace, and guidance. When I make my confession before God, I admit my spiritual destitution and poverty. Without such an attitude, we can hardly expect God to answer our arrogant prayers. We must profess our dependance on him. Only then is his ear attentive to our petitions and requests" (217).

I heard of ACTS before. I once attended an evangelical Bible study, and we were praying within the ACTS paradigm. It seemed so artificial! I wanted to pray from the heart, not conform to a rigid pattern. Plus, the person in the group who proposed this model went on to become an atheist. "So much for empty formality," I thought.

And, for a while, ACTS will probably be a formality to me, without a whole lot of feeling accompanying it. For some time in my prayer life, I tried to use a pattern: I'd thank God for three things, pray for three people, and make three supplications. But I eventually stopped doing that. It seemed like a ritual.

But, now, I find that I complain too much in my prayers. I don't adore God that much. ACTS may be what I need to do in my prayers. Sure, there's a place for speaking from my heart, but I also should get my mind off myself, once in a while.

As far as "confession" goes, I probably won't do it the way most Christians think I should: confess a sin, and then stop doing it. Would be that I could erase pride, lust, hatred, greed, and unforgiveness from my mind! But I can confess to God that my condition is fallen and that I need his help to change. I am a beggar, after all! And that's much better than me acting as if I'm above God, as if I'm in a position to dictate to him what he should do.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last night, I was watching the Little House episode in which Mary went blind. Mary went to a school for the blind in Iowa, where she met Adam Kendall, her future husband.

Adam tried to get her to stop feeling sorry for herself and to start acting like a person with dignity. He wanted her to eat properly (with her fork) and walk with confidence ("Don't shuffle!"). She was not to use her blindness as an excuse to wither away! And he also taught her skills she would need, such as reading braille.

Mary had every right to be upset. She had always dreamed of becoming a teacher, and now she felt as if her life was over. Plus, seeing nothing but darkness can be very depressing. But Adam taught her to cope and succeed with her disability, and she developed a greater sensitivity in her other senses (i.e., hearing). Even so, long after she had become blind, she still wished to see again.

On the episode in which she was going blind, her father, Charles, wondered how God could allow this tragedy. Reverend Alden told him that we're only finite, whereas God is infinite in his wisdom. And he said that God must have a special plan for Mary. And God did, for Mary became a teacher of the blind, helping other blind people to cope and succeed with their disability. That comforted Reverend Alden when he himself started questioning God's will, which occurred when the railroad was forcing people to move from Walnut Grove.

This episode made me think of three things, all of them related to my own condition, Asperger's:

First of all, I should act like a person with dignity. Often, I don't. To be honest, I don't go through life with a whole lot of confidence. It's hard when I feel disliked or disabled to assume that I have anything to offer the world. And it's difficult for me to share my opinion when I think that nobody else cares about it. But I am created in God's image, and that gives me value. I should act like a person of dignity, regardless of what others may think about me.

Second, the question I should be asking myself is, "Where do I go from here?" I know I have a disability, which doesn't exactly lead to all that fulfilling of a life. And yet I should not spend my time in a state of self-pity. I should try to find ways to cope and succeed with my condition, like Mary Ingalls did.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with my therapist about this topic. I told him that many people with Asperger's have discouraged me because of their inability to hold down a job. I expressed fear that this would happen to me. He responded that I should inquire about why they lost their job in the first place so as to learn from their mistake, and I should also seek to offer them advice. When I responded that I don't know what advice to offer, he said that I don't have to be a sage. A lot of it is asking, "Where do we go from here?" and brainstorming through ideas. Unlike self-pity, that's a constructive approach that leads somewhere.

Third, God may have a special plan for me in my disability. At first, Mary wanted to be a normal teacher who taught normal students. But her blindness made her an extraordinary teacher with an extraordinary mission. That may be the case with me, who knows? At the moment, I don't feel much of a calling to teach students with Asperger's. But who's to say where God will lead me? As I gain knowledge about how to cope and succeed with my disability, wouldn't it be great to help others with my condition? It would make all those years of suffering a lot more fruitful, let me tell you! Or perhaps I can be one more example of someone who succeeds with the syndrome, inspiring others not to give up hope.

In real life, Mary did not meet Adam Kendall or go on to teach blind students. She went to a school for the blind in Iowa to learn how to cope, then she lived with her family in South Dakota (not Walnut Grove, Minnesota--see Mary Ingalls - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). On face value, that's not as exciting as the television version, but who knows? Perhaps she succeeded in certain areas. After all, she managed to go on with her life. I remember reading one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, and Mary didn't strike me as bitter. That's an accomplishment all by itself! And she was surrounded by people she loved, who also loved her.

John the Baptist: Could Steph Be Right?

In my post, John the Baptist and Jesus, I had a discussion with Steph about whether or not John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. Steph argued that the synoptics do not present him doing so, and I said that they do.

I appealed to Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, and Luke 20:1-8, which are all pretty much the same passage. In them, the chief priests, scribes, and elders come to Jesus and ask him, "[B]y what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus replies that he'll answer their question if they answer his first: "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" That puts the Jewish leaders into a quandary. If they answer "From God," Jesus will say, "Then why didn't you believe him?" If they answer "From men," they'll anger the people, who regard John as a prophet. And so they respond, "We don't know." And Jesus then says, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."

My interpretation of this passage was as follows: Jesus asked them this question because John had proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah. If the Jewish leaders acknowledged that John's baptism was of divine origin, then they'd have to believe in Jesus, since John proclaimed Jesus. That was Jesus' trap.

And part of me still sees that interpretation as valid, for it addresses the Jewish leaders' question of "By what authority are you doing these things?" If John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, and his baptism was of God, then Jesus must have divine authority for his ministry.

But, after reading certain passages, I can understand how someone can arrive at another conclusion. According to Steph, Jesus wasn't saying that John had proclaimed him to be the Messiah. Rather, he was trying to embarrass the Jewish leaders because they had rejected John the Baptist. "You're trying to trap me with a question," Jesus was saying. "Well, let me return the favor: Where were you when John the Baptist did his baptisms? Did you repent and accept his message, or not?" And this may be more than Jesus playing a game of "Gotcha!" He's showing that the Jewish leaders were not all that sensitive to God's activity in history, so they had no business condemning Jesus.

There are passages in which the scribes and Pharisees display a pretty dim view of John the Baptist. They claimed he had a demon because of his rigorous asceticism (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33). That's rather extreme, don't you think? And Luke 7:30 says they weren't all that enthusiastic about John's baptism: "But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves" (NRSV).

The Pharisees may have been pretty open at times about their contempt for John, but they didn't want Jesus bringing it up, not with dozens of John sympathizers standing around them. They could picture the people saying, "Oh yeah, that's right. You guys didn't care much for John, did you? You even said this bold man of God had a demon. Stone them!"

And Matthew's version of the incident bears this out. The Jewish leaders feared that Jesus would ask them why they didn't believe in John. Immediately afterwards, Jesus indicated through a parable what he meant by "believe." In his story, a father tells two sons to do something. One says he will, but he doesn't do it. The other says he won't, yet he repents and obeys his father's will. The first son represents the Jewish leaders, whereas the second one symbolizes the sinners who repented at John's preaching. Jesus then explains the lesson of the parable: "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him" (Matthew 21:31-32). The Jewish leaders did not "believe" John in the sense that they failed to receive his message of repentance and forgiveness.

Of course, the New Testament is not entirely consistent about this. Matthew 3:7 narrates that many Pharisees and Sadducees did come to John for baptism, but he rebuked them: "You brood of vipers!," he said. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" They may have turned away from him once he bruised their ego. Like many of us, they valued their own glory more than God and righteousness (in the Gospels' telling).

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Debbi Morgan

I was watching The Runaway on the Hallmark Channel last night, and it was about race in the 1949 South. It had Debbi Morgan on it (along with Maya Angelou and Dean Cain). I first saw Debbi Morgan on The Jesse Owens Story, in which she played Jesse Owens' wife. Then, I saw her on The Hurricane, in which she played Rubin Hurricane Carter's wife.

The third time I saw her was on Roots: The Next Generation, but she was a lot younger on that. There, she played Tom the Blacksmith's daughter. She wanted to marry a man who was half black and half white, and her father would have none of it. And so she promised never to marry, and she kept her vow.

Then, I saw her on an episode of The Incredible Hulk. She was young on that too, and she played an orphan who was stealing from people. It had kind of an Oliver Twist sort of plot.

The weird thing is this: until last night, I never connected the woman from The Jesse Owens Story and Hurricane with the young girl from Roots: The Next Generation and The Incredible Hulk. When I saw Hurricane, I thought, "Hey, that's the lady from The Jesse Owens Story!" When I saw the Incredible Hulk episode, I thought, "Hey, she's the girl from Roots!" I didn't realize that they were the same person!

Blindness and Asperger's on TV

I'm watching the Little House on the Prairie in which Mary became blind. A few days ago, I watched the one in which her husband, Adam Kendall, regained his sight. On that one, Mary was supposed to be blind. Yet, she was clearly making eye contact with the other characters. How can I tell what she was looking at? I don't know. I can just tell that she was making eye contact.

But how reliable is my instinct on that? On The Empire Strikes Back, it looks to me as if Luke is making eye contact with Yoda. And, yet, I learned from a documentary about Star Wars that Luke shot a lot of those scenes without Yoda even being there. So was he making eye contact with nothing? Beats me!

This is an issue with a lot of actors who play blind characters. On an episode of Kung Fu, John Carradine (Aaron on The Ten Commandments and Caine's father in real life) played a blind man, and he was making eye contact. On M. Night's The Village, Bryce Dallas Howard (Opie's little girl) played a blind person, and she was making eye contact with the other characters.

Ordinarily, Little House handled this issue pretty well, for it had the people playing blind characters stare into space, or simply look down. That's like what the blind one did on The Ten Commandments: he looks into the sky. But Mary was making eye contact on that one episode.

Now to a similar topic: Asperger's on television. I was watching House on Friday night, and it was about an autistic kid. House is a surgeon who is a big-time jerk. He envied the autistic kid because he didn't have to deal with social niceties in his day-to-day life. Some of the other physicians were speculating that House had Asperger's, but they concluded that such was not the case. He's just a jerk.

On this episode, at least there was a good, clinical definition of Asperger's. They were obviously quoting an authoritative source, maybe that big book of psychological syndromes (whose title I forget). Regarding other shows, I'm not too sure about their research. Doc was a program that starred Billy Ray Cyrus (of "Achy Breaky Heart" fame), and it had one episode in which a character had Asperger's. But he seemed to be on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, for he was very limited in his ability to interact (but at least he got a hot babe at the end!). And then there was Becker, in which the secretary was making fun of the name "Asperger's." Dr. Becker chastised her, as he informed her that Asperger's is a really serious disease. But no one defined what the syndrome was.

And so television is making progress!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Are God's Words Absolute?

Many fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservative Christians act like the Bible's words are absolute, with no flexibility whatsoever. When they read that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, they take that to mean that it will never be forgiven (ever). They are also absolutist on hell. "The Bible is clear that non-Christians will burn in hell forever and ever," they say. "There is no wiggle room, no second chance in the afterlife, no hope for the lost after death." It's hard to believe that, especially when you're trying to comfort people who've lost unsaved loved ones.

Such a view offends many people's sensitivities about God. George MacDonald, whom C.S. Lewis called his "master," speculated that God tries to ease the sufferings of those in hell. For MacDonald, a loving God does not sit back and allow people to be hopelessly tormented. He is love, after all.

Judges 10:13-16 makes me wonder how absolute we should be in our approach to the Bible. The passages states the following:

"[God said to Israel, 'Y]ou have abandoned me and worshiped other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.' And the Israelites said to the LORD, 'We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!' So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the LORD; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer."

God said he would deliver Israel no more. Yet, he changed his mind after Israel repented, and he spared her out of his love for her: he couldn't bear to see her suffer.

But God said he would deliver Israel no more! Where's the flexibility in those words? Can you find any hope in what God says? It looks pretty bleak! But God turns out to be more flexible in his actions.

Similarly, the biblical passages about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and hell also seem hopeless and bleak. But should we see them as absolute? Should we allow them to deprive us of hope?

At the same time, do we want to say that God doesn't say what he means, and mean what he says? Do we want to rob God's warnings of any teeth, giving sinners an excuse not to take them seriously?

Gay Man Challenges Gun Control

NPR has an excellent story today, NRA Seeks to Overturn Handgun Bans Beyond D.C. San Francisco has a ban on handguns in public housing, and that negatively affects a gay man, who owns a gun to protect himself from hate crimes. Allied with the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, he is challenging the anti-gun law in court. And he has that new Supreme Court decision to back him up!

How are liberals going to react to this? They claim to care about the plight of homosexuals. Well, are they going to let them defend themselves from homophobic rednecks, or will they continue to cling to their anti-gun dogma, regardless of whom it hurts? Sure, many (but not all) libs want to take Dr. Dobson off the air in their alleged concern for homosexuals. How about letting them own a gun for self-protection?

Gun control hurts many people from the Democratic Party's own constituency. After the Civil War, Southern governments prohibited African-Americans from owning firearms. In the late 1960's, the ban on cheap Saturday Night Specials deprived blacks of cost-effective means for self-protection. It's refreshing to see that gun groups and a homosexual are allying on an important issue.

Storms Can't Hurt the Sky

I finished Gabriel Cohen's Storms Can't Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce. Gabriel Cohen is a freelance journalist whose wife, "Claire" (not her real name), left him. He found solace in Buddhist lectures, which gave him the tools to recover from his bad experience and start a new life.

I'll open this "book review" with a personal anecdote. When I was at Harvard, I was taking a class on religion and public education, and I sat next to a conservative Baptist minister. I told him that I didn't know how to determine which religion is the right one, and he responded with some irritation. "Well, which one matches the way the world is?," he said.

He didn't exactly explain what he meant, but I think he was referring to original sin. There are many passages in the Bible that portray human beings as morally bad, particularly Romans 1-3. And, when we look at all of the greed and murder and adultery and suffering in the world, we can easily concur with the Bible that something is wrong with the human race. For the minister, that demonstrates that Christianity offers the accurate description of reality.

My problem with this argument is that other religions also try to account for human immorality. I mean, how can they not? For a religion to be relevant, it needs to explain features of the surrounding world.

So how does Buddhism account for human immorality? Basically, it says that human beings look to people and things to make them happy, and they also seek to avoid suffering. The problem with our approach is that life cannot always satisfy us, since things do not always turn out the way that we like. And so how should we approach life? According to Buddhism, we should view all of it as an opportunity to develop character (e.g., patience). We should deliberately choose not to get mad (the implication being that we can control our emotions). We should get our minds off ourselves and serve others, which makes us happy. We should be compassionate towards people, even those who have hurt us, since we are all in the same boat: we seek happiness and the avoidance of pain. And, unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not view humans as inherently bad--they simply see life the wrong way. That's why we need enlightenment.

A lot of this overlaps with evangelicalism. "We should not look to people and things to satisfy us," I've heard evangelicals say. "They'll always disappoint you. Look to the Lord Jesus. He will never disappoint!" "Stop being selfish! Give to others, for that is the key to happiness." "Suffering builds character." "Forgive others, for you are a sinner too!" And I once heard Gordon Hugenberger, the pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, preach that we can control our emotions.

Joel Osteen says a lot of the same things, but he differs from Buddhism in one respect: Joel affirms that we should expect good things from God, for that is his definition of hope! Buddhism, by contrast, advises us to go through life with low expectations. How else can we cope with the fact that life stinks? We become less disappointed when our expectations are low in the first place.

Where do I stand on all of this? I'm rather mixed. I like Buddhism's claim that I can choose not to be angry. There are times when I say to myself, "Look, I'm upset right now, but life is not perfect, and I'm only making things worse by getting all agitated about it!" Such an approach actually alleviates my anger.

I'll admit that my problem is selfishness: I look to people and things to make me happy. I expect the entire world to serve me, when it's usually not all too eager to do so. Is giving the panacea? Maybe. Maybe not. There have been times when I've received a lot of satisfaction from service work. But there are also plenty of people who give and give and give, and the result is burn out rather than happiness. Moreover, what if I give to others and they don't appreciate me? I also have problems with Cohen's view that we should always let others have their way as we attempt to avoid conflict. That can allow them to walk all over us! Although we shouldn't be inflexible and insensitive to the desires of others, there is a place for self-assertion, every now and then. As Steven Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, think "win, win." That means we should try to come up with solutions that satisfy both parties (whenever possible).

I'm mixed on the question of whether my expectations should be high or low. I admit that I no longer do what Joel Osteen tells me to do: look in the mirror and speak God's favor over myself and my day. Maybe I should get back to doing that. Instead of complaining to God about not having a job right now, for example, perhaps I should thank God for the job he's about to give me. There are plenty of passages in the Bible about trusting God to give us good things.

And, yet, bad experiences are an opportunity. But they're not just an opportunity to become better people, as important as that is. They are also a chance to wait on God, who is able to make our situation better, in this life and the life to come.

I kind of like the Buddhist conception of humanity. Which is better? To say, "We're all thoroughly evil, but now I'm regenerate, and so I must forgive you" (Christianity)? Or to say, "Most of us mean well, and we're combinations of good and bad. But we go through life misinformed, as we look to people and things to make us happy" (Buddhism)? I don't know. The Buddhist one gives me a kinder view of my fellow human beings. And, yet, I'm reluctant to say that everyone means well, since there are plenty of jerks out there!

I also like the way that Buddhism is non-dogmatic. Buddha did not say, "Believe my way, or you'll go to hell for all eternity!" It's more like, "Here is what I've concluded about life. See if it works for you" (or perhaps that's Gabriel Cohen's postmodern rendition of Buddhism). Buddhism also believes in reincarnation, which gives people numerous chances to get things right.

And, yet, I can tell that Cohen believes there's a lot at stake. He talks about a murder that occurred in his apartment, which was a sobering reminder to him of where anger can lead. That goes beyond saying, "Do this, if it works for you." It's pretty crucial that we learn the right way!

Another thought that occurred to me: In certain strains of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who reaches enlightenment yet "compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others" (wikipedia). Is Christ like a bodhisattva? Yes and no. Like a bodhisattva, Christ put himself in second place to save us, for he left the comforts of heaven in order to show us the path to glory. As the song goes, "You came from heaven to earth to show us the way."

On the "no" side, there are plenty of biblical passages that present Christ as God, or at least as someone who always had his act together. That means he never needed to become enlightened, since he already saw things in the right way. And, yet, we read in Hebrews 5:8-9: "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (NRSV). His experience as a man enables him to be a compassionate high priest for us (Hebrews 4:15). I don't think that Christ learned the path to salvation on earth and is now trying to enlighten us, which is what characterizes a bodhisattva. Rather, he came to be our salvation, not to achieve it himself. At the same time, he did get something from his experience on earth that he did not have before, and that allowed him to become a compassionate Savior. In that sense, he is somewhat like a bodhisattva.

So will I become a Buddhist? No, but it does have insights that can help me every now and then. And, as Gabriel Cohen notes, one does not have to become a Buddhist to practice its suggestions.

Friday, June 27, 2008

"Politicization" of the Justice Department

According to a recent Justice Department audit, the department deliberately rejected liberal or Democratic applicants because of their political positions. For the Justice Department, this kind of hiring practice is against the law, since it's supposed to be politically independent.

But don't Republican Presidents generally appoint Republicans? And don't Democratic candidates generally appoint Democrats? How many conservative Federalist Society members did Bill Clinton appoint?

Plus, if you want politicization, the Wall Street Journal shows that Bill Clinton took the cake:

"Janet Reno...simultaneously fired all 93 U.S. Attorneys in March 1993. Ms. Reno--or Mr. Hubbell--gave them 10 days to move out of their offices.

"At the time, President Clinton presented the move as something perfectly ordinary: 'All those people are routinely replaced,' he told reporters, 'and I have not done anything differently.' In fact, the dismissals were unprecedented: Previous Presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, had both retained holdovers from the previous Administration and only replaced them gradually as their tenures expired. This allowed continuity of leadership within the U.S. Attorney offices during the transition.

"Equally extraordinary were the politics at play in the firings. At the time, Jay Stephens, then U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia, was investigating then Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, and was 'within 30 days' of making a decision on an indictment. Mr. Rostenkowski, who was shepherding the Clinton's economic program through Congress, eventually went to jail on mail fraud charges and was later pardoned by Mr. Clinton.

"Also at the time, allegations concerning some of the Clintons' Whitewater dealings were coming to a head. By dismissing all 93 U.S. Attorneys at once, the Clintons conveniently cleared the decks to appoint 'Friend of Bill' Paula Casey as the U.S. Attorney for Little Rock. Ms. Casey never did bring any big Whitewater indictments, and she rejected information from another FOB, David Hale, on the business practices of the Arkansas elite including Mr. Clinton. When it comes to 'politicizing' Justice, in short, the Bush White House is full of amateurs compared to the Clintons."

Under Bush, the Justice Department tried to hire conservatives. Under Clinton, firings of U.S. attorneys took place to save Bill's political hide. Which is worse?

Is the Second Amendment Unlimited?

In my debates with liberals on gun control, they often point out that the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms is not unlimited, meaning that the government can and should place limits on it. Barack Obama actually said this in a debate with Hillary Clinton! In most cases, liberals make this statement after they concede that the right is individual, not collective, showing that you just can't argue with the words of the founding fathers! But, in any case, I've heard all sorts of liberals argue as follows: "Of course the government should place restrictions on the right to bear arms. We don't want individuals possessing nuclear weapons or anthrax, do we? Do you want people walking down the street with uzis?"

But does the pro-gun side think we should allow the private ownership of nuclear weapons, anthrax, or machine guns? NPR has a story that explains the position of Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision recognizing the right to bear arms as individual (see here):

"'Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapons whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,' Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. But it did allow for individuals to have guns for lawful purposes, such as hunting and defending themselves, he said. The majority clearly saw the individual right to own a gun...

"Scalia said nothing in Thursday's ruling should 'cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.'"

And so Justice Antonin Scalia believes that the Second Amendment has its limits. Of course, the question is what those limits can be now that we have this new decision. But I think it's obvious that the District of Columbia was violating the Consitution. The Second Amendment says the people have the right to keep and bear arms. The District of Columbia banned residents from owning handguns. How much more egregious can you get?

But does the National Rifle Association view the Second Amendment as absolute? It's against the assault weapons ban, right? Here are some quotes from its fact sheet, "Assault Weapons" & Semi-Autos:

"Semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns are also used for protection...Handguns are the type of gun most often used for protection, and about three-fourths of new handguns sold today are semi-automatic...

"Contrary to the claims of 'gun control' groups, semi-autos don't 'spray fire' and are not 'easy to convert' into machine guns. Easily convertible guns are prohibited by federal law and conversion is a federal felony punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine...

"The Clinton Gun Ban's 10-round magazine limit interferes with the right to self-defense. Police officers use standard-size magazines for good reason--their protection. Other citizens also have the right to defend themselves, and a magazine-capacity limit puts them at a disadvantage when defending themselves."

Apparently, the NRA doesn't treat the Second Amendment as unlimited, for I didn't see it argue against the law that bans the conversion of a gun into a machine gun. So it must believe that individuals should not own machine guns. What concerns the NRA is this: Does the ban on semi-automatics severely limit the right and the ability of people to protect themselves? And its conclusion is, "Yes, it does." Many handguns sold today are semi-automatic, meaning that the ban on "assault weapons" is not a prohibition on machine guns, but on many of the regular guns that you'd find in stores. And cops see a need to carry semi-automatic weapons for self-defense. So aren't we leaving people somewhat defenseless when we deprive them of that opportunity?

The Second Amendment is not unlimited, but it does recognize the right of individuals to protect themselves. The question is which gun control laws inhibit people from exercising this right. Those are the laws that violate the Second Amendment.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mary and Adam: Morning and Afternoon

The Hallmark Channel has four Little House on the Prairie episodes each day, two in the morning, and two in the afternoon. In the two morning ones today, Mary loses her sight and meets her future husband, Adam, who also is blind. In the two afternoon ones, Adam regains his sight. How's that for a coincidence?

Mary is sad that Adam regains his sight. She fears that she'll be a burden to him and that he'll leave her behind for his sighted friends. On a previous episode, there was hope that Mary would get her sight back, and Adam was upset for the same reasons (he was still blind at the time). Maybe Adam should've been more sensitive to Mary once he got his sight back, since he once felt the same way that Mary did.

There's one part that has always puzzled me. On the one in which Adam gets his sight back, he takes a series of tests to become a lawyer. But he gets sick and misses a few of them, and he is required to wait a year before he can take them again. Mary goes to the professor and calls such a rule "unfair." "If a law is unjust, does the court have the power to annul it?" she asks. "The court has such power," the professor responds.

Does it? I mean, I know that the Supreme Court can annul laws that violate the Constitution. But can it get rid of laws on the sole basis that it deems them unfair? Talk about judicial activism and legislating from the bench!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One More Thing on Dobson and Obama

Barack Obama said the following in his 2006 speech on religion and public policy:

"I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they think about faith in their own lives."

As Dobson points out, Obama said this before all of the outcry about his (Obama's) own pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who actually does use religion as a means of attack. When conservatives do it, it's being mean. When liberals do it, it's standing up as a prophetic voice for social justice. Go figure!

Dobson and Obama

I want to weigh in today on Dr. James Dobson's criticism of Barack Obama. Dobson recently responded to a 2006 speech that Obama gave, which discussed the role of faith in politics. Obama said the following (see here for the complete speech):

"[G]iven the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount--a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

"This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

Dobson and his guest, Tom Minnery, gave at least four responses to Obama's speech (click here to listen to their comments). First of all, Minnery pointed out that most Americans are Christians, according to the Pew Forum's research, meaning that America is not a Muslim nation or a Buddhist nation or a Hindu nation.

Second, Dobson denied that he wants to expel unbelievers or deprive them of their constitutional rights. He also took offense at being equated with Al Sharpton, whom Minnery called a racial bigot.

Third, Dobson argued that Obama is the one who doesn't understand the Bible. According to Dobson and Minnery, many Old Testament laws applied only to ancient Israel, whom God was trying to purify after he had delivered her from Egypt. That means they don't apply today. The implication is that God needed to run a tight ship in order to cleanse his people of paganism and hold them together as a godly nation. Consequently, God separated Israel from the nations through his dietary laws, and he mandated the death penalty for a child who defied God, embarrassed his family, and lived a drunken lifestyle. Dobson and Minnery also dispute Obama's pacifist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, for they argue that Jesus and Paul acknowledge the existence of real evil in the world.

And, fourth, Dobson assumed that Obama was saying we should exclude religion from public policy debates, as we focus instead on the "lowest common denominator of morality." Dobson translates this to mean that, for Obama, a Christian cannot oppose partial-birth abortion on moral or religious grounds, but must conform his beliefs to the views of people from other religions (or no religion at all). Dobson sees that as anti-democratic.

I have some responses to Obama and Dobson:

First of all, Obama did not attack Dobson. He did not accuse Dobson of wanting to expel unbelievers or deprive them of their civil rights. His whole point was that, even if America were a Christian nation, there would still be difficulties if we attempted to teach Christianity in public schools, or use it as a guide for public policy. Would we embrace the approach of the Christian right, which James Dobson exemplifies? Or would we draw on the ideology of the Christian left, which Al Sharpton represents?

This dovetails into my second point: Obama is not for excluding religion from public policy. He clearly acknowledges the importance of faith in America's heritage, including its political activism (e.g., abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement). He explicitly states that "our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

The problem is that people will get nowhere by hurling proof-texts at one another. I can say that the Bible is against abortion, but that won't convince someone who doesn't believe in the Bible. Plus, what would happen if proof-texting became the basis for public policy? Would Catholics be justified in banning birth control for all Americans, non-Catholics included? There's nothing wrong with having a religious motivation for our political positions, or with appealing to Christianity as a way to draw from our common national heritage. But we should also come up with secular arguments. That's what Obama is saying (even though he may question the "common national heritage" part).

And Dobson does this! When he argues for the Federal Marriage Amendment, for example, he doesn't just appeal to Leviticus. He also refers to the decline of marriage in countries that legitimate homosexual unions. He argues that forsaking the traditional definition of marriage can allow it to mean anything and everything. He explains how recognizing gay marriage can completely damage America's Social Security system. It is not reducing ourselves to the lowest common moral denominator to come up with secular arguments for our public policy positions. The religious right does this all of the time!

Third, Obama was pretty condescending when he said that Christians do not read their Bibles. Evangelicals have their ways of explaining (or explaining away) the difficult passages of Scripture. I may not find them convincing all of the time, but Obama shouldn't act as if they're unaware of the Bible's troubling aspects. And, in some sense, he acknowledges later in the speech that Christians do wrestle with them, for he states: "Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages--the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity--are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life."

Fourth, I do feel that Obama contradicts himself, on some level. He argues that Christians should not have to leave their faith at the door when they enter politics, then he cites "problems" with bringing Christianity into the public square. He is for allowing "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance that students recite, yet he opposes teaching religion in public schools. Personally, I see nothing wrong with public schools acknowledging the importance of the Christian faith in America's heritage. Sure, non-Christians should not be forced to do so, but why should we have a nationwide ban on school prayer, especially when there are many areas of the country that are predominantly Christian?

Obama wrestles with some hard issues, and, in the process, he looks like he's talking on both sides of his mouth. Dobson takes Obama's speech more personally than he should, plus he quotes it rather selectively.

TBAA: Til Death Do Us Part

Today, I saw an episode of Touched by an Angel that I hadn't seen before. It was about a rancher who committed suicide.

Why did he do that? I guess he was just plain tired of living. He had turned 40, and he felt he had nothing to show for his life.

Andrew (the angel of death) tried to reason with him. He told him that God created everyone and everything for a purpose, even if we don't know right now or tomorrow or the next day what that purpose is. The rancher did some farming, so he should know better than anyone that life takes time. And Andrew informed the rancher that his wife had breast cancer, meaning she needed his support now more than ever.

Well, the rancher told Andrew, "You've given me things to think about," then he shot himself while Andrew was walking away. When the rancher's wife was trying to make sense of the suicide, Andrew told her: "You know, I've been an angel for a long time, and one thing that continues to astound me about you humans is not that a few of you give up on life, but that most of you keep going on. Life is so hard, and yet so many of you get up every morning, believing that each day is a new day. There's some hope inside of you that keeps you going."

And, indeed, there is. There is some notion within us (or at least me) that things can get better. Or, at the very least, we keep on going because there are people who love and care about us, and maybe even need us.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

7th Heaven

I watched the very last episode of 7th Heaven yesterday. I enjoyed the show, but I don't think I'm going to watch it all the way through a second time. I already know what happens to everyone. Maybe I'll just watch my favorite episodes when they come on. Right now, I'll be turning my attention to the Waltons.

When I first saw the show, it didn't make that big of an impression on me. I think it was because it focused a lot on popular kids in high school, and I didn't want to relive my high school years, since I was not popular. But, one morning, I got up and turned on the TV, and I saw that it was on ABC Family. It was an episode from the very first season--the one in which Eric was counseling a battered wife. It drew me in at that time, for whatever reason. Maybe it was because Reverend Camden had a special gravitas about him, for he displayed genuine compassion and warmth to people in trouble. And he looked good in a suit. Plus, Catherine Hicks was pretty nice to look at!

I saw the final episode when it first came on, but I didn't recognize any of the characters. After all, at the time, I hadn't seen any episodes between the first and the eleventh seasons. Ruthie had a deeper voice, and she was telling a man named Martin that she just wanted to be friends. Martin was incredulous, and he reminded her that she had wanted to go out with him for a long time. "Why the change?," he asked. "Typical woman," I thought. "She leads this poor guy on, then she drops him."

But, after I watched the nine seasons in between, my impression was a lot different. Martin was actually the one who didn't know what he wanted. He chased all sorts of women, then he finally came back to Ruthie and expected her to fall all over him. My feelings about Martin were rather mixed from the beginning. I didn't care much for him the first time he was on--when he just came into the Camdens' house uninvited, plopped down on their couch, and watched TV, when nobody there even knew him. How arrogant! I did admire the fact that he was protective of Ruthie, plus he was a strong Bush supporter, since his dad was in Iraq. But his maturity kind of dwindled as the seasons went on.

And that's the way it was with a lot of the characters. When Simon was a kid, he was somewhat of a prodigy, for he was interested in science and economics. His family called him "the bank of Simon" because he always had money. When he grew up, however, his only interests were sex, sex, sex, and he was so irresponsible! He almost contacted an STD!

Ruthie was also a good person who degenerated with her adolescence. In her younger years, she genuinely cared about other people. I think of that episode in which she confronted her father at the bowling alley about a secret she knew he was keeping (his bad heart condition), or the one where she told her brother, Matt, "Your secret is safe with me" (the secret being that he had hastily eloped with Sarah). Ruthie also had academic interests, and she asked questions about the world around her. That's why she was in a school for the gifted! But, eventually, her interests became limited to sex, sex, sex. And she become so shallow, too. In the last season, she was unwilling to leave Scotland to be with her dying father (or at least everyone thought he was dying, including himself). How selfish can you get?

Plus, after I had watched the series all the way through, Ruthie appeared less mature than she did when I had first watched the last episode. Her voice wasn't as deep the second time I saw it, for it still had that "little kid" quality.

One thing I liked about 7th Heaven was that it had a social conscience. You remember those "very special episodes" that you used to see on TV, which covered important topics like drugs or abuse or kidnapping? Well, 7th Heaven had a few of those! I think of this one episode in which a working man couldn't feed his family, and it profiled high school students who were speaking into the camera about their difficulties with hunger. At the end of the program, it provided information about the federal food stamps program. I wondered how I'd be able to cope if I were hungry. There was also a special episode on child sexual abuse, which likewise gave information on whom to call. 7th Heaven obviously tried to make a positive difference in the world.

Regarding where it was on the political spectrum, I'm not entirely sure. It was supportive of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet it had a couple of anti-gun episodes. It pretty much towed the conservative line on sex before marriage, for, even though not all of the Camden kids followed that rule, their parents upheld it as much as they could. Swimming upstream against the culture is not always easy, especially in child rearing!

I also enjoyed seeing familiar faces, for, like Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven drew its share of actors from old shows. I saw Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell, Jason Seaver from Growing Pains, Meredith Baxter from Family Ties, Al from Step by Step, Pete from Smallville, Laura from Little House on the Prairie, Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Kenny from Picket Fences, Jack Arnold from the Wonder Years, Loren from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (who is married in real life to the mom on the Wonder Years), and Ray Walston from, well, all sorts of shows. And some of them went on to be successful, such as Ashley Simpson and Alyssa Lohman.

And so I'll miss 7th Heaven. Of course, I watched the series in sixth months, whereas most of its fans did so for eleven years. They probably miss it more than I do! But it's a fun show to watch. And I thank those of you who were patient with my write-ups about it, as I relived the 90's and early 2000's.

I Have a Hard Time Believing That...

Well, the Pew Forum's new study on religion in America is all over the web. The most detailed explanation that I found was on Dr. Ben Witherington's site, under a post entitled, "Pew Forum's Revelations-- Do even a Majority of Evangelicals Believe Jesus is the Only Way of Salvation?"

As I read the post, the feeling I got was that America is rapidly becoming a secular country. But the survey indicates that 78.4% of American adults are Christians. And yet, at the same time, the "unaffiliated" group is gaining converts (if you can call them that).

There are a few items of the survey that strike me as, well, not very believable. First, it says that 57% of evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Look, I'm not an expert on polls, but I seriously doubt that number, based on my own personal experience. In most evangelical settings, if you say something like, "I think there are many paths to God and heaven," you'll get a few reactions. One possibility is that they'll look at you like you're completely insane or heretical. But, most likely, they'll quote to you John 14:6 and Acts 4:12, which present Jesus as the only way to God and salvation.

Second, the study says that 1.7% of Americans are Jewish. Is that really it? I feel that the number should be higher than that. Part of that may be because I went to two Jewish schools, but there are Jewish people in all sorts of areas, even my home town of Brazil, Indiana. That number reminds me of America's racial demographics, which claim that African-Americans make up only 12.4% of the population. It has to be higher than that! Of course, maybe I feel this way because I walk a lot in downtown Cincinnati. But something tells me that the number should be higher.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ghosts and the Afterlife

I was watching some cheesy Lifetime movies last night, but they were good enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. One was They Come Back. It was about a psychologist and a little girl who sees dead people (sound familiar?). But it wasn't entirely a rip-off of the Sixth Sense, since the psychologist wasn't a dead person. She actually interacted with people! There was a good classroom scene, though. The little girl wasn't saying "Stop looking at me like that!," but she did shatter the aquarium, or at least got her poltergeist friend to do so.

The other was Nightmare at the End of the Hall. It was about a famous writer and teacher at a prep school, Courtney, whose dead friend is haunting the halls. In addition, someone who looks just like her friend is living at the school--in the same room where her friend committed suicide (or, as we learn later, got murdered by the headmaster because she had a baby with the headmaster's son, who actually liked Courtney). The movie had a lot of suspense, but, once everything was explained, my reaction was "Big deal." There was one interesting point, though: Courtney made a lot of money off a novel about her friend's suicide, which upset the girl's family. What she did looks pretty cold, but writing is supposed to be based on real life experiences, right? That's a good ethical question!

After the movies, I was thinking about the topic of ghosts. At Hebrew Union College, I once took an adult ed class about demons, and the professor said that demons in the ancient Near East could be ghosts who came back to take care of unresolved business. But what does the Hebrew Bible teach? Most of the Hebrew Bible seems to teach that the dead go to Sheol, period. I know there are passages that oppose the cult of the dead, which included offering them food. Such a practice may imply that the dead could leave Sheol every now and then. I don't know.

In terms of my religious background, the teaching on the afterlife that I always got was "soul sleep." It's held by Armstrongites, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and perhaps others. I once heard it mentioned on the program, Christy! According to this doctrine, the dead are unconscious between the time of their death and that of their resurrection. Its justification is that there are biblical references that call death a "sleep," plus there are some passages that say the dead don't know anything. Consequently, according to advocates of "soul sleep," whenever a person sees a "ghost" of a dead person, he is actually seeing a demon. And that includes the "ghost" of Samuel in the witch of Endor scene!

In terms of experience, I've heard stories about ghosts. When I lived in New York, I attended a liberal Seventh-Day Adventist church, and the guest speaker was an expert on missions. During our lunch, I heard stories about Latin America and the Caribbean, in which ghosts are an accepted part of life. Some of them take out the garbage!

One of my relatives told me that there was a ghost in her house. She saw him with her peripheral vision, and she claimed that he took objects and returned them every now and then. There were times when the rocking chair moved and no one was sitting in it. He wasn't a mean ghost. He just liked hanging around the house!

In my great-grandmother's final moments, she talked to an invisible person who was sitting on her bed. Did she have her own Andrew, the angel of death on Touched by an Angel, who escorts departed souls to the afterlife?

I'm not sure if I'd call every ghost a demon, since many of them don't seem malevolent or engaged in deceptive spiritual practices. They're just there! But there is a potential for deception. I once read a tract by Bob Jones (though I forget whether it was I, II, or III). He said that the ghost of his dead mother once appeared to him, and she was telling him that there were many ways to get to heaven. He knew that wasn't really his mother, since she believed in Jesus. He identified that spirit as a demon.

Can one reconcile the existence of poltergeists with Christianity? You really can't with soul sleep, but how about with the immortal soul? According to that doctrine, a soul can go to heaven or hell. Or some maintain that it goes to a waiting room, where it anticipates the final judgment. Can a spirit wander the earth for a while before going there? When Nicole Kidman on The Others felt that her existence as a poltergeist contradicted her conservative Catholic beliefs, maybe she should have waited for a while: God eventually would've sent her soul to where it belonged.

I don't know.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Biden's Bad and Good Points

I watched Meet the Press this afternoon, and Senators Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham were on it. Joe Biden was defending Barack Obama and attacking John McCain, and he said some pretty provocative things (see Read the transcript).

First of all, Brian Williams referred to a February 17 quote by Hillary Clinton that questioned Obama's flip-flop on receiving public financing. Here's Biden's response:

"I understand her words. She was competing against him. Were I, were I still in the race, I'd probably be raising it. But the essence, the honest to God truth is, he's kept his commitment of keeping big money, individual influence, out of his campaign."

Well, that's pretty telling, isn't it? Biden likes Obama because he's kept big money out of his campaign, yet he'd be criticizing him if he (Biden) were still in the race? So Biden admits that he doesn't always say what he means and mean what he says? He's basically confessing that he's dishonest?

Second, Graham and Biden talked about drilling for offshore oil. Graham said: "Why did the Democratic leadership send a letter to President Bush, to [tell] Saudi drill more? The Democratic solution here is tax at home and get Saudi Arabia to drill more. The supply they want comes from the Mideast. The supply John McCain wants is here at home to blunt the effect of dependency of Mideast oil."

And Biden responded: "We're not trying to get Saudi to drill more, we're trying to get them to pump more of what they're drilling. They're not pumping what they could, number one. This is a gift, a gift to the oil companies by John McCain. They have now leased 41 million acres of offshore leases. They're only pumping in 10.2 million of those acres. Seventy-nine percent of all the offshore oil available off the coast of Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast, lies within those acres that they now have. Why are they not pumping? Why are they not doing this? Why are they not pursuing what's estimated to be a total of 70--54 billion barrels of oil at their disposal right now if they pump? Why are these greedy fellows deciding they want to go beyond that? It's because they want to get it in before George Bush leaves the presidency. It's because they're not pumping the oil to keep the price up. They are not even drilling. So here you have 30 million leased acres they have right now that possesses 79 percent of all the offshore, and they're not drilling. And John says they need more? And it would take 10 years for it to come online."

But, if the oil companies don't even want to drill offshore, then why's Biden against allowing them to do so?

Biden still raises a good question, though: Will the companies even want to drill and pump more in America, if they're permitted? Or are they satisfied with the status quo, since higher prices mean more profits?

In a free market economy, competition should be bringing down the prices. Theoretically, a maverick company should be able to enter the equation, drill and pump in more areas, and offer the gasoline at lower prices, all in attempt to draw customers to itself. Then, the other companies would try to do the same, and the gas prices would come down. So why isn't that happening?

Maybe the companies are all agreeing not to drill more, since that allows them all to reap high profits. Or perhaps there's not a whole lot of competition, since there are only a handful of big oil companies that are even in the game. If a maverick company ever entered the equation, the big companies would drive it out of business, since they'd have the resources to pump more and charge lower prices. Then, after driving the maverick company out of business, they'd raise the prices back up. That would discourage maverick companies from even joining the game!

Of course, there's the possibility that government policies favor the big companies and discourage competition. David Cay Johnston presents examples of that sort of thing, in Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill).

John Marks, Reasons to Believe

John Marks is a veteran journalist and a former producer of 60 Minutes. He decided to investigate American evangelicalism after a conservative Christian couple asked him if he'd be left behind at the rapture. In the course of this task, Marks revisited a faith that he had left behind. He had accepted Christ as his personal Savior at age 16, only to abandon Christianity later in life. His investigation was his second look at evangelical Christianity. The product of his research is a book entitled, Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

I identified with many aspects of Marks' journey. He became a Christian because he was ashamed of the mean things that he did to others, and that was a big reason that I converted to Christ. He kept an insightful, reflective journal throughout his faith life, the same way that I write about my spiritual journey in my blog. He began to lose his faith when a Christian friend told him that "God doesn't like artists because they ask too many questions," and he chose the path of asking questions rather than seeking to win people to a particular dogma (evangelicalism). At the same time, he explored other religious options, such as Sufism and Hinduism. Like Marks, I'm reluctant to tell others that a closed-minded version of Christianity contains all of the answers to life's questions, and yet I seek some place of rest and solace. I differ from Marks in that I continue to find a lot of beauty and wisdom in Christianity, and I choose to share that with other people. But, even when Christianity does not appeal to me, I make a decision to hold on tenaciously to God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. I cannot lose my faith--not without my consent.

The problem of evil inhibits Marks from re-embracing Christianity. One event that had a huge impact on him was when he was in Bosnia, and a father was hanging on to some thread of hope that he'd see his family again. That gave him the will to go on. When Marks learned that the man's family had been slaughtered, however, he (Marks) despaired that there could be any purpose behind such evil. At the end of the book, Marks affirms that he chooses to be left behind simply because there are too many bad things in the world, things that God should not permit.

I too wrestle with the problem of evil. In my case, I think about people with Asperger's Symdrome, who struggle to develop relationships or find jobs. I wonder if God even has a plan for them (and "them" includes me). And, as for those Western Christians who are so "blessed" in life, maybe they're just lucky. They don't have to struggle with a social handicap. Plus, they live in a prosperous part of the world. It's easy to say "God has a plan for my life" in those kinds of circumstances!

And, yet, everyone has problems, including American evangelicals. This was true of Don and Lillie McWhinney, the couple that asked Marks if he'd be left behind. They were prosperous people, for Don was an big-time executive in the oil business. But Lillie confessed to Marks that she once had a lot of fear, which Jesus helped her get through. And, in the course of the book, they lose their manic-depressant son in an accident.

What helps them through that whole ordeal is their belief that they'll see their son in heaven. Their son had lots of issues, but at least he accepted Christ as his personal Savior. But what if he hadn't? How would they have felt then? Can one rely on this sort of belief system for comfort, especially when so many people in the world die without knowing Christ? Marks touches on this issue when he relates that the McWhinneys bought a Hot Wheels toy for his son, who is half-Jewish. "I couldn't get out of my mind that they were gifts for a boy doomed for cosmic incineration," he says (8).

And that's something that surfaces in Marks book: there are all sorts of people in the world, who have done a lot incredible things. They have their own unique stories. For example, there's the transvestite who courageously survived Hitler and Stalin before coming to America. Where do they fit into the evangelicals' universe? Is a view that says, "They're wrong, and they're going to hell" the only legitimate way to think about them?

Marks talks in detail about a sermon by the McWhinneys' pastor, Tommy Nelson. Nelson preaches on Romans 1, arguing that even those who have not heard the Gospel are doomed to hell, since they've rejected God and his moral law. And, yet, Nelson is clear that God cares about each and every place in the world, for Revelation 7:9 says that people from EVERY nation, tribe, people, and tongue will stand before God and the lamb. "God will populate eternity with one, at least, someone, from every place," Nelson claims. That's actually a profound thought! God has his loving eye on every nook and cranny in the world, even a tribe in Tim-bick-too, which hasn't heard the Gospel! I wonder how someone will be saved in such a tribe. I've heard stories about Muslims who have dreams about Jesus, so maybe that's how God does it. Personally, I wish God would do that for everyone!

A lot of the book is about searching for hope in the face of hopelessness. Marks encounters many Christians who have experienced healings, miracles, and other out-of-the-ordinary events, which tells me that God is doing something in this broken world. Even the McWhinneys experience God's healing hand after their son's death, for they become friends with the man who caused it, who is himself a Christian. They manage to find something redemptive in a tragic situation.

And God also works through his body, the church. In the book, Marks interviews Pastor Bob Russell, who offers a different interpretation of Matthew 16:18, which says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church:

"For years[,] our concept of that Scripture was that we've got the church, and we've got gates around the church, and Satan's going to pound up against those gates, and he's not going to prevail against it. But someone pointed out that Jesus isn't talking about the gates of the church. It's the gates of hell, and the church ought to go right up to the gates of hell and rescue people from hell. That's why we've got support groups for people with alcohol addictions, for people who have gone through divorce, for men with sexual addictions. We're here to rescue you when you've fallen, to say, hey, there's nothing you've done, there's no journey you've taken from God, but what you can turn around and he'll be right there. He's still reaching out to you" (151).

And Marks presents inspiring examples of Christians who boldly confront the gates of hell, as they strive to make a positive difference in a fallen world. There's the African-American church, which for years has fought for social justice out of a matter of necessity. There are the evangelicals who helped communities rebuild after their devastation by floods and hurricanes. There's the group of anti-social church leaders, who haven't done too well in American congregations, yet have the courage and tenacity to go overseas and build churches in the very midst of radical Islam. And then there is Renda Berryhill, a Christian conservative school board member from the suburbs, who shocked her neighbors by moving "into an abandoned hotel on one of the roughest drags of Odessa to meet the needs of troubled women" (286). All of these people act out of a love for Christ, as they carry him and his message into some of the bleakest areas.

The book discusses other issues as well. It features David Barton, a conservative Republican from Texas who collects artifacts from U.S. history that demonstrate America's Christian heritage. His presentations receive standing ovations even from staunch non-Republicans, particularly within the African-American community. Marks talks about a friend of his, a professor of film at a Christian college, who thinks that "a film containing obscenity, nudity, drug use, and violence [like Thomas Anderson's Magnolia] might be more God-filled than" a lot of the mediocre Christian movies out there (206). Marks delves into the world of Christian music, as he discusses music's power in light of the shofar. And he spends time in the evangelical intelligentsia, as he observes debates in the Discovery Institute and the Evangelical Theological Society.

Marks' book is a worthwhile read, for he highlights the multi-faceted nature of American evangelicalism. Some of it makes me uncomfortable, but other parts move me to tears.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What Aunt Julie Wants...

Late last night, I watched "It's All about George," which is an episode from 7th Heaven's first season. It had a scene that really spoke to me.

Aunt Julie is Reverend Eric Camden's sister, and she's a recovering alcoholic. She had a lot of success as a school principal, but she lost her job and her friendships due to her drinking. My recovery was not exactly like hers, since I never had any withdrawal symptoms, whereas she practically had to be locked inside a room. And people wonder why I was reluctant to call myself an alcoholic! Maybe it's because of the extreme way that they are portrayed on television. "I'm not like that," I could say to myself.

But, getting back to our topic, both aunt Julie and Eric Camden were raised by two hard-core, intimidating parents: Colonel John Camden and his wife, Ruth. I love the episodes that have the Colonel, but I can see how he'd drive someone to drink! But the Colonel and Ruth have found some happiness lately, since they adopted 10 year old George, whom they adore.

Well, it turns out that George's real father wants his son back, and the Colonel and Ruth don't want him to go. The Colonel is also sad because he feels that his daughter, Julie, hates him. George runs away, and Ruth says something hurtful to Julie. In the next scene, Julie is in the Camden's kitchen late at night, with a bottle of wine and a glass. Her father is alone outside, and he's sad because George is leaving.

Right when Aunt Julie is about to take her fateful drink, we hear Matt Camden (the oldest Camden child) say, "I thought I'd find you here." He must have been standing there all that time!

Julie tells him that she just can't take it anymore. She can't cope, especially not with her parents. Matt then points to the Colonel sitting outside, and he says, "What you want is in that glass. What you need is out there."

What she wanted was obviously more attractive than what she needed. She wanted to feel good, and that could come easily: all she had to do was drink from her glass. But she needed to reach out to her father, and that was hard for her, since he could be intimidating. At the same time, what she wanted--alcohol--wouldn't bear much good fruit for anyone--herself or others.

And so Julie goes outside and comforts her dad. The two reconcile, and they live happily ever after.

I know it's only a story, since life doesn't always have a happy ending. But what Matt said was powerful. When I drank, I wanted to feel better. That's why I drank when I was by myself. When I was in a group, I drank to loosen up socially, or to get attention, or just to endure a situation that I considered intimidating (i.e., being in a group). But drinking was not exactly a cure, for it made me very passive. It dulled my mind, making it easier for me to withdraw more and more into myself. I was not reaching out to others. I was not boldly engaging tasks that intimidated me. On some level, I got what I wanted: the good feelings that came with drinking. But I was not getting what I needed: the fruitful activity that can accompany sobriety.

When I think back to my DePauw days, which were before I drank, I realize that I had many of the same problems back then that I have right now: shyness, introversion, timidity, etc. (Not that I'm drinking now. I'm not.) But, in those days, I at least talked when I went out with people. I didn't do that as much in my drinking days. I turned to drinking to help me socially, but it was having the opposite effect.

I think that sobriety is good because it enables me to be active. My mind is not dulled when I am sober, so, when I find myself in situations that make me uncomfortable, I have to do SOMETHING. It's fight or flight! My sobriety is my ally in all sorts of situations! Overall, doing something with a clear mind is productive. It can give me a sense of self-esteem, as well as hopefully help someone else.

My Old Origen Posts

I wrote some posts on Origen in November for my weekly quiet time, which was then on the Book of Joshua. I did not publish them because I was saving them for a slow day, when I'd have no idea what to write about. But I don't have too many of those. Sometimes, I have tons of ideas, but I can only touch on a few of them on a given day. So I might as well publish my thoughts on Origen right now.

In my first post, I talk as if I'll be writing tons of stuff on Origen. But that's not what happened, since I only wrote two posts. There were days when I thought, "I should write about this," but I didn't get around to it. And, right now, I forget what the topic was that I was going to write about. And I'm not in the mood to comb through Origen trying to find it.

Enjoy these posts! I'll be writing some more today on other topics, so stay tuned!


Friday, June 20, 2008

Waltons: The Actress

I don't normally watch the Waltons, but there was an episode today that somewhat grabbed me. It was from the first season, and it concerned a big-time movie star who stayed with the Walton family.

Why did it grab me? For one, the actress was giving her driver a hard time, so I thought she may be a social snob. Consequently, I wanted to see how she'd treat the poor, seemingly backward Walton family. Second, I'm interested in shows that depict clashes between two different worlds: liberal and conservative, red and blue, religious and atheist, rich and poor, white and non-white. (You can probably gather that I'm a Norman Lear fan, even though I disagree with his politics!) What happens when two people from completely opposite backgrounds encounter one another? And how does each side change and grow through the interaction?

In this case, a big-city Hollywood actress was spending time with the rural, homey Walton family. She had to stay with them because her car was not running, and her connections were letting her down because they disliked her temper and the way she mistreated them. As far as her interaction with the Walton family was concerned, she was really nice to them. A few of the family members were fans of hers, and she enjoyed being appreciated (and gawked at by the Walton men).

Some of the family enjoyed having a celebrity in their home, but others wanted her to move on, and fast. Grandma in particular didn't like the way that she slept past noon, brought worldliness into the home, imposed extra housework on the Walton women, and attracted Grandpa's wandering eye. And Ma Walton thought the actress was a bad influence on Mary Ellen.

Although the actress was rich and successful, she didn't really like herself. When Ma Walton said that the world only needs one Alvira Drummond (the actress's name), Alvira overheard and replied, "I couldn't agree more."

But Alvira and the Walton family grew through their mutual interaction. Alvira was touched by the small-town values and wholesome sincerity that she encountered among the Waltons and their neighbors. The town organized a local performance to raise money for her trip to New York, and all the residents really appreciated her rendition of Shakespeare. Moved by conviction of sin and the kindness of strangers, she learned that she needed to treat people better.

But the growth was not one-sided, for Alvira had a positive effect on the family as well. Grandma and Olivia eventually liked her. And Alvira expressed admiration for John Boy's writing, which he was hiding from everyone else. When Alvira read one of John Boy's works in her performance, the audience was astounded by his eloquence. And so Alvira helped John Boy gain confidence as a writer, as he came to realize that he had something valuable to contribute.

Each side tended to admire the other. Alvira liked the wholesomeness of rural and small town America. And most of the Waltons were drawn to the glamour and importance of the big city. Alvira recognized that her life was missing something. And John Boy appreciated the validation of someone from a culture he considered more sophisticated than his own.

When Alvira read a passage from one of John Boy's writings, something he wrote stood out to me. He said that the word "home" was probably invented by someone who did not have a home. This fit Alvira, who didn't belong to any family. She was rather shallow and narcissistic, and so she learned the values of love, sacrifice, and giving from the Waltons. But the passage also made me think about Michael Landon, who had a horrible childhood, yet depicted a happy family on Little House on the Prairie. He was showing the world what he wished he had as a child. He knew what a home was partly because he did not have one.

That's why I enjoy reading non-Christian books about Christianity, or the part of Christian testimonies in which the narrator describes his pre-Christian, "spiritually searching" stage. Whenever I see The Ten Commandments, I like Moses when he went to seek his God better than Moses after he found his God. There is a certain purity to a spiritual quest--a conviction that the world has to make sense, coexisting with a disappointment that it often does not; a growing disenchantment with the idols of this world; a sense that there is something deeper and wholesome that gives life meaning. But, at the same time, it's good when people find what they've been looking for. That shows that desire is not all there is, for it can be fulfilled by someone real.

Growth. Desire. This Waltons episode touched on a lot!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

From the Library 2

I'm still working my way through John Marks' Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind, and Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past. These books have lots of jewels, let me tell you, and I will be sharing them with my readers in days to come.

If I follow my reading schedule, I'll have these books finished this week. That's why I checked out some more books in my trip today to downtown Cincinnati. There were many books that appeared somewhat interesting, but they didn't exactly grab me. One was a biography of Condi Rice. Another was a psychological profile of Clarence Thomas. And then there's that biography of Ariel Sharon that I keep passing, but never check out. Maybe some other time!

There were three books that grabbed me, in the sense that they looked enjoyable and worthwhile to read. Here they are, along with an explanation of why they intrigued me:

1. Gabriel Cohen, A Buddhist Path through Divorce (Philadelphia: De Capo Press, 2008).

This is about a man whose marriage fell apart, and he found comfort in Buddhism. Buddhism is a popular religion among many who are burned out by conservative Christianity. I've met lots of people from Bible belt Protestantism and Roman Catholicism who say, "I consider myself a Buddhist."

They usually strike me as people who have inner peace. Their religion seems very serene. I feel a sense of relaxation when I hear them talk about going out into nature on retreats for meditation. And I can somewhat understand Buddhism's appeal, for the religion has a certain mysterious quality, being from the east and all. Still, I don't comprehend how anyone can find comfort in a religion that lacks a personal God. Granted, I may sometimes view God as intrusive, inflexible, and authoritarian, but, on the whole, I want him around as a personal presence--one who loves, nurtures, and comforts.

I once watched a documentary about the popular TV series, Dallas. The guy who played Bobby Ewing, Patrick Duffy, is a Buddhist, and his religion helped him after his parents got killed in a robbery. My problem was that he passively accepted their death as a natural part of life. There was no sorrow, none that I could see. His religion seemed to suck his emotions right out of him, making him somewhat of a vulcan.

And, from my undergraduate study of Buddhism, that's my impression of what it's all about: it wants us to get rid of all desire and attachments. And that should take care of all our greed, lust, envy, and disappointment. It reminds me of what Yoda tells Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin expresses fear that someone close to him may die: "Mourn them not, miss them not!" But that kind of life strikes me as so GRAY. No desires? No attachments? At least Christianity allows us to find happiness in a personal relationship with Jesus. It offers rewards, both in this life and also the life to come. In essence, Christianity compensates us for our lost greed and lust by emphasizing something positive. It does not just suppress the negative.

But my image of Buddhism may not be completely accurate. I know a man who is a Zen Buddhist monk, and he has a beautiful wife and an adorable child. (He told me with a wink that he's becoming more conservative now that he's a parent!) He apparently has happiness!

This book appeals to me because I love spiritual autobiographies, and I think this is an opportunity for me to enjoy a good story while learning about Buddhism. And, in the process, maybe I can understand why more Americans are becoming drawn to it!

2. David Klinghoffer, How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative (New York: Doubleday, 2008). David Klinghoffer is a religious Jew who is also a political conservative. If memory serves me correctly, he even defended Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. One of my Jewish professors cannot stand him, even though he does admire another Jewish conservative, Michael Medved.

This book piqued my interest because it not only covers gay marriage and the death penalty, which have some pretty clear proof-texts backing up the conservative side. Rather, it also discusses immigration, the environment, poverty, and health care. And I'm interested in why he thinks the Bible favors the conservative side on those issues. Regarding poverty and (indirectly) health care, the Torah presents something like a welfare system, in that the ancient Israelites were to collect a tithe for the poor every three years, as well as leave the corners of their fields for the poor. And that wasn't voluntary charity! It was mandated, like taxes! For the environment, the Hebrew Bible celebrates God's creation and exhorts human beings to be good stewards. On immigration, the Torah told ancient Israel to love the stranger. And so I'm sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what Klinghoffer does with these motifs!

3. Victor Kuligin, Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006). This sounds like a book that I would write, but, as I looked through it, I saw that it's not. The author, a Christian professor in Namibia, doesn't seem to complain about Jesus' apparently problematic statements, but he attempts to justify them after thoughtful reflection. Maybe he'll offer some new thoughts that I've never encountered.

I'll keep you posted!

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