Thursday, July 31, 2008

More MacDonald on Witnessing

In George MacDonald's The Baron's Apprenticeship, Pastor Thomas Wingfold gives Barbara advice on how to witness to her friend, Richard:

"Now, Miss Wylder, don't try to convince the young man of anything by argument. If you succeeded, it would do no good. Opinion is all that can result from argument, and opinion concerning God--even right opinion--is of little value when it comes to knowing God. The god Richard denies is a being that can never exist. Talk to Richard, not of opinion, but of the God you love--the beautiful, the strong, the true, the patient, the forgiving, the loving. Let him feel God through your enthusiasm for him. You can't prove to him that there is a God. A god who could be proved could not be worth proving. Make his thoughts dwell on a God worth having. Wake the notion of God such as will draw him to wish there were such a God. Many religious people will tell you God is different from what I say. 'God is just!' said a carping theologian to me the other day. 'Yes!,' I answered, 'and he cannot be pleased that you should call that justice which is injustice, and attribute it to him!' There are many who must die in ignorance of their heavenly father's character, because they will not of their own selves judge what is right."

Man, there's a lot here! I can do an entire series on this quote alone. But here are some reactions:

1. I like the way that George MacDonald's advice on witnessing focuses completely on God. It's not, "Look how good and happy I am, and you can be just like me if you say the sinner's prayer!" Or "you should believe in Christ because otherwise he was a liar or a lunatic," which is one of the many bad arguments that Christian "apologists" like to use. We don't even see, "If you get hit by a car tonight, where will you spend eternity: heaven or hell?" (I'm emphasizing a word here, and it's not "God"). None of that! According to Wingfold, witnessing should be all about God and his character!

2. That brings me to my next question: How do I see God? I've been doing a series on that in my discussion of Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. To be honest, I disagree with myself on this issue. I'll admit that part of me views God as loving. After all, I talk to him every day, which demonstrates some belief that he cares enough to listen to me. Also, I find things like love and humility and kindness and generosity and selflessness in the Bible. If God commands us to abide by these characteristics, then he must have them himself.

But there's a part of me that doubts God's love. How can a loving God send so many people to hell, just because they didn't say the sinner's prayer before they died? Am I even sure that I'll enter the good afterlife, since there are many biblical passages that present living a good life as evidence for salvation (e.g., I John 2:3-4, 9-11)? Is my life good enough? And how can I be sure that God will bless me, when there are so many people who suffer?

And so I technically believe in God's love, but there are things that can cause me to second-guess that. What can I say about the God I carry around with me each and every day? He's a mixed bag! I pray to him with the hope that he'll listen to me and bless me. But I don't know if I'm obedient enough to have his approval.

3. Overall, George MacDonald is experiential when it comes to knowing God. I realize that his disciple, C.S. Lewis, took a more apologetic route in books like Mere Christianity and Miracles, in which he tried to present arguments that Christianity is true (including the "Lord, liar, lunatic" one I mentioned above). But MacDonald tends to shy away from this sort of approach, even though he often presents good debates between his Christian and non-Christian characters. For MacDonald, you find God when you seek him, and that discovery occurs within the realm of personal experience.

Part of me resonates with MacDonald's approach. I hear arguments all the time against God and the Bible, but they don't really phase me anymore. It's not that I have answers for them. It's just that my faith doesn't rest so much on having the right argument in a given situation. Sure, I'll present arguments if I have them, as I did when I discussed Jesus' resurrection with atheist Steven Carr. But a huge part of me agrees with one of my relatives, who said she believed in God because she wishes it to be true.

Atheists would laugh this off as wishful thinking, which may indicate that a "just have faith" approach won't bring them to Christianity. But, look, I'm not responsible for them! Each person must decide for himself whether or not he'll seek God. I can't force an atheist to do so. If other Christians embrace apologetics as their ministry, then I encourage them to go for it! Christian apologetics don't always convince me, mind you, but, if someone can make them work, my response is "Great!" All I'm saying is that I'm going to hold onto my faith regardless of anyone who argues against it. If people don't like that, tough! It's my personal relationship with God, and no one can take it away from me (at least not without my consent).

On the other hand, one thing that totally gets on my nerves is how many Christians view blind faith as a virtue! I've heard numerous Christians say, "You can't prove God's existence, because then it wouldn't be faith," as they pat themselves on the back like they're communicating a brilliant insight. What's so great about believing in something without any proof at all? Granted, I feel that's all we have a lot of the time, but I don't view blind faith as a virtue. There are times when I'd like some evidence that the God I worship is real, for that would give me a lot more hope than I currently have. At the same time, it would also make me accountable to someone, and I don't really want that. There's comfort and discomfort in my theistic agnosticism! But, then again, I can't say that my image of God is the same as George MacDonald's. Maybe if it were, I'd earnestly desire for God to exist!

4. "God is loving, but God is also just." I've heard Christians use this phrase in two ways: as an evangelism gimmick, and as a scare tactic. In the former, the aim is to show the non-believer that God punishes sin, which means that he must accept Christ's sacrifice on his behalf. After he does so, I guess God isn't just anymore! God already punished Christ on the sinner's behalf, so the sinner can now see God as loving (not just).

But there are churches that view God as still just, even after the sinner embraces Jesus. Preachers use the "God is just" line to get Christians to stop sinning, or to do what the preachers think they should be doing. You wonder why I walk around wondering where I stand with God? Because I don't know whether God is loving or just in his relationship with me. Churches like to present a schizophrenic God. I admit that George MacDonald doesn't account for the Scriptures that contradict his position (as far as I can see), but at least he merges God's love with God's justice. For him, God punishes sin to lead us to himself, not to get his jollies while we're receiving our due!

5. Wingfold says that people should "judge for themselves what is right," a quotation from Luke 12:57. In what I'm about to say, I'll probably bury myself in my debate with Jake under "Natural" in Romans 1:26-27. But that's a risk I'll have to take!

I feel that there are Christians who present God as a complete monster, and they expect us to accept their picture just because it coincides with Scriptural proof-texts. Never mind what our reason or our sense of morality tells us! If the Bible says that God chose a select few for heaven while consigning the vast bulk of humanity to eternal torment in hell, then we're just supposed to accept that, no questions asked!

But the Bible tells us to judge for ourselves what is right. God told Israel, "Let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18), showing that the "Sit down, shut up, and accept!" approach is not always how God handles things. In several of his parables, Jesus appeals to the reason and moral sense of his listeners, as he invites them to arrive at the correct answer themselves. On some occasions, even Jesus' enemies come up with the right responses to his questions, even though they condemn themselves in the process (Matthew 21:41)! There are times when God actually works with our reason and our sense of morality. He doesn't necessarily expect us to ditch these things so we can accept a monstrous picture of himself.

At the same time, I believe we should be open. Maybe the unpalatable parts of Scripture actually correspond to our reason and our sense of morality, but we don't know how at this present time. Some may have insight into how this is so, but many of us have our own sets of blinders that inhibit us from seeing certain possibilities. I may complain about Bible study groups, but one good thing about them is that I get to hear different perspectives from my own, and that helps me to see things that I may not have previously seen.

I'll stop here. Hope you enjoyed this post. Have a nice day!

George MacDonald on Witnessing, Atonement

I'm reading George MacDonald's The Baron's Apprenticeship (or There and Back, which was its original title). George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish author, poet, and minister. He had a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L'Engle, and C.S. Lewis. Lewis moved towards Christianity after reading MacDonald's Phantastes. He had such a high regard for the Scottish theologian that he called him his "master." Lewis also compiled a book of George MacDonald quotes, for he believed that MacDonald was close to the heart of Christ.

Notwithstanding MacDonald's fan base among Christian celebrities, he held doctrines that would strike many evangelicals as heretical. He leaned in the direction of universalism, in that he viewed hell as a place of correction rather than eternal punishment. And he had problems with the substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ died in sinners' place to pay the penalty for their sin. As far as MacDonald was concerned, Christ came to turn people from their sin, not to appease a wrathful deity.

There were quotes in one chapter of The Baron's Apprenticeship that I really relished, even if I didn't agree with them totally. They said what's been on my mind for a long time, only I didn't have the words to express my thoughts. So I'll share them with my readers as well as comment on them.

A little background on the plot: Barbara, a Christian, has a friend named Richard. Richard is a book-binder and (unbenownst to him) a nobleman. He strives to be a good person, but he is not a Christian. He doesn't feel that he needs God, and the existence of evil keeps him from believing that a beneficent deity rules the world. Barbara is talking with Thomas Wingfold, a Christian pastor of the community, whom we encounter in other George MacDonald books. Barbara wants advice on how to witness to her friend.

Here are some quotes:

Barbara had a "great desire to help Richard believe in God. It was not her desire to see him 'converted'; indeed, the word would have little meaning to Barbara. Certain attempts at what is called conversion are but manifestations of greed for power over others; swellings of the ambition to propagate one's own creed and proselytize victoriously; hungerings to see self reflected in another convinced. In such efforts lie dangers as vulgar as the minds that make them, and love the excitement of them. But genuine love is far beyond such groveling delights" (105).

Preach it, George! And how much pride, power, and manipulation goes on in evangelicalism today? I can say a LOT about this quote, but I'll limit my comments to the evangelical concept of accountability, in which Christians enjoy telling other Christians how to live their lives. Does that really have anything to do with love? Or does it flow from a human desire to exercise power over someone else--to see a reflection of oneself in another person? I hate it when people tell me, "James, you've grown," which is something I hear from all sorts of people--both evangelical Christians and also liberals. Usually what that means is that I'm behaving more according to the standards of the person who says it. In short, I'm growing to be more like them (or as they view themselves to be). It makes me a little sick, to tell you the truth!

"Fortunately, [Barbara's] life had not been loaded to the ground with the degrading doctrines of a wrathful God whose so-called justice is perversely satisfied with the blood of the innocent for the punishment of the guilty" (105).

I had always heard that George MacDonald had problems with the substitutionary atonement, and I knew from his other books that he focused more on salvation from sin rather than the penalty of sin. But this was the first time that I read him explicitly criticize Anselm's doctrine, and, to tell you the truth, it somewhat took me aback!

I never really had problems with Anselm's atonement model. I think it reminds us that we are sinners in need of God's grace, an idea that can make us humble in our Christian walks. In addition, Anselm is consistent with the New Testament, for Paul's epistle to the Romans clearly states that the wrath of God is against sin, and that Jesus Christ's blood serves as a propitiation that delivers believers from God's wrath. You don't know how many times I've heard people blow off the substitionary atonement with "that's just Anselm." No, it's not just Anselm. It's the New Testament.

And I don't understand for the life of me how Anselm's model contradicts a God of love. I'll let Paul answer that claim: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God" (Romans 5:6-9 NRSV). Paul didn't see anything unloving about deliverance from God's wrath through the blood of Jesus Christ. So why should we?

At the same time, I think that evangelicalism focuses too much on deliverance from the penalty of sin, and not enough on freedom from sin itself. I'll admit that this sweeping generalization isn't accurate in a lot of cases, but, seriously, what are Christians told to emphasize when they share the Gospel with non-believers? "If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?" "You're not perfect, and God demands perfection for you to be in his presence, and you can only have that when Christ's perfect life covers your sinful imperfection." These popular models of evangelism focus overwhelmingly on salvation from the penalty of sin.

And, indeed, there's a lot in the New Testament about forgiveness. But the New Testament also speaks a great deal about freedom from sin itself. Here are some passages:

Matthew 1:21: "She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

John 8:31-35: "Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.' They answered him, 'We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'? Jesus answered them, 'Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

Acts 3:26: "When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways."

Romans 6:5-6: "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin."

Jesus did not just come to earth to pay the penalty for our sins. He came to show us a better way of life. And he did that throughout his experience on earth, which includes his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. Unfortunately, many of us are slaves to lifestyles that hurt us and other people, even as they hinder our relationship with the only one who can give us genuine satisfaction. And one of Jesus' goals was to free us from all that junk.

In my next post, we'll look at another George MacDonald quote on witnessing.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What's Going On? 3

I'm watching The Dead Zone right now--the series with Anthony Michael Hall and David Ogden Stiers. At 10:00, I'll be watching a movie with Elisabeth Shue. Shue plays a woman who goes crazy after she has her first child. Not only am I interested in seeing what Shue looks like years after Karate Kid, but the plot description also intrigues me. It sounds like Rosemary's Baby. So maybe this will be a cheesy Lifetime suspense flick--the type of movie I love!

Tomorrow, I'll post some edgy quotes from George MacDonald on witnessing and the substitutionary atonement. My comments on the quotes will touch on my image of God, which I started discussing yesterday.

I can hear that Dead Zone is back on, and the commercial break is over. See you all tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Picture of God: Above our Pettiness

In How to Know God, Deepak Chopra discusses various stages of human interaction with the divine. In the first two stages, we see a reliance on God as a protector and provider. In the later stages, however, we see less apprehensive approaches, which are more contemplative than they are fearful. One stage emphasizes arriving at a state of peace, wisdom, and tolerance, regardless of one's surroundings. Another focuses on human creativity, which mirrors the divine creator. Virtues such as love, forgiveness, and understanding also enter the equation at certain points.

In my first post on Deepak Chopra, The God Mirror, I asked if I am a reflection of the God that I worship, or if he's a reflection of me, or both? My answer to that is pretty complex, and I find that I disagree with myself in a number of ways!

Let me say this at the outset: there are people in my life whom I cannot stand. Bitterness actually wells up in my mouth whenever I think about them. But do I believe that God hates them? My answer to that is "no, I do not." I think God's above all our petty disputes. I may not desire for my enemies to prosper, but I hope that God wants what's best for them. He wouldn't be God if he's a big version of me!

But do I want God to punish my enemies? I'll admit: I'd like for God to put them in situations where someone made them feel the same way that they made me feel. Maybe then they'd learn compassion, or at least their punishment would show me that God cares about my suffering. In addition, I'd be pretty upset if I saw them prospering, especially if I were not. Something would be wrong with that picture! The Bible tells us to leave vengeance up to God (Romans 12:19). My problem is that God doesn't always do his job. Often, to be honest, I wonder if anyone is minding the store!

But, again, I'm not sure if I want God to curse someone just because I don't like him. There are people who don't like me. Should I be cursed on account of that? Again, I'd like to think that God is above our little personality clashes. God seeks to work things out for the good of everyone. He's not my personal hit-man!

Does that view make me love my enemies more? Yes and no. Thinking about a God who loves everyone allows my mind to take a break from its uninterrupted bitterness, and that's good. But I still feel hurt if a person doesn't like me, or if someone has hurt me. That doesn't go away.

And so I do not really reflect my image of God, which says he desires the good of everyone, including my enemies. And my God is not my personal hit-man, for I see him as someone who's above all my pettiness. I can view God as loving, yet I still have problems exercising love myself.

But there's more complexity to that, as I'll show in a coming post.

My Picture of God: Stages 1 and 2

In my last post, The God Mirror, I talked about Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. For Chopra, our picture of God reflects who we are and where we are at spiritually. Here, I want to discuss my image of God and what that says about me. I'll focus specifically on stages 1 and 2 of Chopra's schema.

This post is actually harder than it looks! I can write something like the Westminster Confession, as I list various attributes of God and support them with Scripture. My problem is that there are ideas about God that I can intellectually accept, yet that doesn't mean they form the God whom I carry around with me on a day-by-day basis (if that makes any sense). When I'm doing my quiet times on one of my itineraries, how am I seeing God? When I am sitting in the classroom, what is my picture of God? And does my image of the divine impact my day-to-day life?

As I read Deepak Chopra's book, I identified with stages 1 and 2. Stage One is "God the Protector (Fight-or-Flight Response)," and it envisions God as "vengeful, capricious, quick to anger, jealous, judgmental--meting out reward and punishment, unfathomable, [and] sometimes merciful." He's somewhat like Don Corleone: you want to appease him so he'll protect you--from himself and the challenges of life.

Stage Two is "God the Almighty (Reactive Response)." Here, God is "sovereign, omnipotent, just, answerer of prayers, impartial, rational, [and] organized into rules." Do you want blessings in your life--a new car, a nice house, a hot babe? This is the God you come to! Do you want your enemies to suffer? Then it's a good thing this God is just!

My image of God includes a lot of stages 1 and 2. I want to be blessed in my life, in that I desire success in my academic career, the hope of a bright future, etc., etc. And this was my image of God way back in high school. "Lord, please help me to do well on this test," or "Lord, protect me from anyone who wants to pick on me." I wanted control over my life, and God was a way to have it. But I had to make him happy to receive what I sought--through prayer, reading my Bible, etc., etc.

Today, a lot of that stuff is still going on, for I continue to seek God's blessing when I take tests or write papers. And I also hope that he favors me with a nice, attractive woman some day. But one thing that I think about more today than I did before is the safety of my family. I want God to protect them. And I'm virtually superstitious about it! What would happen if someone in my family died in a car accident, and I forgot to pray beforehand for his or her protection? Would I be able to forgive myself? Would the death be my fault?

I'm somewhat like Job in Job 1:5: "And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, 'It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.' This is what Job always did." That was Job's way of maintaining control over his life. He wanted to keep on receiving blessings, and (like a good parent) he sought the well-being of his family. So he tried to appease God through sacrifice. And he made sure that he covered all of the bases too--he didn't want God to kill his kids over some sin that they committed!

I know that this kind of makes God out to be an ogre, but I didn't come up with these ideas! Christians are always praying that God will protect them and their loved ones from danger. "Travelling mercies" is one term for it. And we see this concept all over the Book of Psalms. But what are we supposed to do with it? Do we have the power to prevent accidents? And if there is an accident, is it our fault for not praying?

I think that being in stages 1 and 2 is one reason that I like Joel Osteen, who emphasizes hope for the future and includes material prosperity as one of God's blessings. Life is really scary for me! As a person with Asperger's, I wonder if I have much of a future. Will I get a job? Will I have security? Will my life ever turn around for the better?

Many Christians think that Joel's Christianity is rather shallow, and they want a Christianity that is a lot deeper. And I can see where they're coming from, since I don't just want stuff. But is it wrong for me to desire security--financially, physically, socially, etc.? Sure, I can go deeper, but don't I need some basic things at the outset?

In a coming post, I'll talk about my interaction with God's love. Some of it will be old hat to my readers, and other parts will be new. Stay tuned!

The God Mirror

I recently read Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. To be honest, I didn't understand a lot of it, and there were aspects that seemed a little too New Agey for my taste. You know those philosophers who say that a chair isn't really there? Well, there were times when Deepak was leaning in that direction.

Reading this book was like my experience with Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology: I'm sure he's communicating profound things that I can find useful, but, for some reason, they're not sinking into my brain. Maybe it's their writing style, or my short attention span, or the information overload. I don't know. And I'm not really in the mood to read them again, at least not at this time.

But a key point of Chopra's book is that God is a reflection of human beings. Chopra's not an atheist, mind you, for he claims, "The fact that we single out traits like mercy and love, judgment and redemption, shows that we are forced to give God human attributes, but that is absolutely proper if those traits come from God in the first place" (44). So there is a God, in Chopra's opinion. Also, Chopra maintains that there are stages in how we approach the divine, ranging from the primitive to the most advanced. He states that "God has to be approached in stages, for otherwise one could never close the huge gap between him and us" (44).

Chopra gives a succinct summary of the stages on page 44: "God is a protector to those who see themselves in danger. God is almighty to those who want power (or lack any way of getting power). God brings peace to those who have discovered their own inner world. God redeems those who are conscious of committing a sin. God is the creator when we wonder where the world comes from. God is behind miracles when the laws of miracles are suddenly revoked without warning. God is existence itself--'I Am'--to those who feel ecstasy and a sense of pure being."

For Chopra, one's relationship with God goes from wanting a strong protector-deity for one's family, to developing a dispassionate sense of wisdom and peace (regardless of external circumstances), to cultivating virtues and creativity, all the way to forming a oneness with God and all things (the New Agey part). Chopra sees value in all of the stages, for even the most primitive one emphasizes good things like family and community (187). For that reason, I'm not sure if he holds that we can be in multiple stages at once (since people tend to compartmentalize). But he does seem to believe that humans can progress from one stage to another.

And so our view of God is a reflection of where we are. One thing Chopra said that internalized this point for me was that we worship a wise God when we ourselves have a certain amount of wisdom. Could some of the things that I admire about God be in me already?

Chopra overlaps with Ludwig Feuerbach, a nineteenth century German philosopher and anthropologist. For Feuerbach, humans project upon God the attributes that they want to possess. For the ancients, these may have included power, strength, sexual prowess, and prestige. For Jews and Christians, they are mercy, compassion, and love. Unlike Chopra, Feuerbach appeared to have a negative attitude towards religion, for he viewed it as man's alienation from himself. In Feuerbach's view, here man is, projecting his desires and qualities onto God, when he should be looking within himself and celebrating his own humanity.

Years before Feuerbach, the philosopher Xenophanes (570-480 B.C.E.) had the same sort of model, but he took it in a different direction. Like Feuerbach, Xenophanes said that humans make gods in their own image. In his words: "if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own" (see here). But Xenophanes was not an atheist, for he felt that portraying God as a human being was a disservice to God. Consequently, he was a major force behind the allegorical method of interpretation, which held that Homer's anthropomorphic portrayal of the gods was not literal but had to be symbolic of something else. I've heard various labels for Xenophanes' understanding of God, for some call him a monotheist, others a pantheist, and still others assert that he had a mathematical picture of the divine. In any case, he believed that bringing God down to the human level in effect cheapened God, who is above and beyond us.

But I can hear Chopra saying that there needs to be some bridge between humans and the divine, otherwise there can be no relationship. And even a lot of Christians acknowledge this point. In the sixteenth century, John Calvin said that God speaks to us in a lisp, which means that he stoops down to our level when he communicates to us. Perhaps we need metaphor in order to understand a being as great as God!

And yet, there are others who would claim that there actually is some overlap between humans and the divine. According to this view, God is like us, and we are like God, for God created us in his image, after his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). That doesn't account for how different cultures can have a variety of pictures of the divine, though.

I often hear Christians say that we become like the God that we worship. If we worship a God who is harsh, judgmental, and critical, then we will become harsh, judgmental, and critical. But if we view God as compassionate, loving, and forgiving, then those are the attributes that we will have. Ellen White said that "by beholding we become changed." The question is, "What exactly are we beholding?" And are we reflecting what we are beholding, or is what we are beholding a reflection of ourselves? Or is it a little of both?

In my next post, I want to discuss my image of God. Where do I fit into Deepak Chopra's schema, and what's that say about me?

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Natural" in Romans 1:26-27

In Another Addendum on GLBT Posts, Michael Westmoreland-White states the following:

"In 1 Cor. 11:14, Paul asks rhetorically, 'Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him. . .?' Here 'nature' clearly means 'custom,' because what is 'unnatural' is cutting one’s hair. So, it is possible (by no means certain) that Paul has the same meaning in mind in Romans 1 when he calls same sex pairings 'unnatural.' What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to 'nature' or to natural law arguments."

Okay, let me get something off my chest at the outset. Michael Westmoreland-White tries to look at this issue from a variety of angles, and that's commendable. But that doesn't stop him from making unwarranted dogmatic assertions every now and then. "What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to 'nature' or to natural law arguments"? Or, to quote another part of his post, "It is certain that [Paul] is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution." How are these points "clear" or "certain"? In the latter case, Paul doesn't even mention pederasty or temple prostitution in Romans 1. Nor does he use a Greek word for "exploitation." Westmoreland-White is reading those things into the text. What is certain to some is not necessarily obvious to others.

But back to "natural." We see in Romans 1:27 that Paul considers homosexual activity to be unnatural, for he states that "men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another" (NRSV). Westmoreland-White proposes that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "according to nature" in this case, but rather "according to custom."

I've encountered this sort of tactic before from a lot of liberal Christians. When I was at DePauw, I attended a gay Bible study group in order to hear the other side. I thought that the Scriptures were pretty clear in their stance against homosexuality, so I wanted to see if there were other ways to look at the Bible. The workbook that we used offered a rather bizarre interpretation of "natural" in Romans 1:26-27. It cited Romans 11:24, which states, "For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree." Here, "contrary to nature" refers to something that's positive: the inclusion of the Gentiles. Consequently, the argument ran, who's to say that what's "unnatural" is necessarily bad?

But, seriously, can you honestly look at Romans 1 and tell me that Paul thinks homosexual activity is a good thing? He calls it "shameless"! He says it reaps a penalty! As far as he's concerned, it's not good.

At Harvard, I got into a little debate with another student about homosexuality. As many of you know, Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." According to my friend, "abomination" in that passage does not mean a moral abomination, but rather a socially unacceptable act: a social abomination, if you will. After all, he pointed out, the same word for "abomination" (toevah) appears in Genesis 43:32, which says that "the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians." For my friend, "abomination" addresses a cultural preference rather than a moral concern, so Leviticus 18:22 doesn't mean that homosexuality is morally wrong.

And that's essentially Westmoreland-White's approach to Romans 1:26-27, at least in the quote that I pasted above (he says different things elsewhere): there, natural means according to custom.

But does that make any sense at all? First of all, however Paul defines "natural," he obviously sees homosexuality as a sin in the eyes of God. The context of Romans 1:26-27 is the Gentiles' downward spiral into sin. And, to challenge my Harvard friend as well, who cares if "abomination" in Leviticus 18:22 means a social abomination (which is disputable, since toevah can refer to moral abominations as well; see Proverbs 6:16-20)? God says don't do it. He even mandated the death penalty for it in Old Testament Israel (Leviticus 20:13). Would God say that about a mere social taboo?

Secondly, who says that Paul deems homosexuality to be contrary to custom? As far as he's concerned, it's obviously not against Gentile custom, for the Gentiles are doing it! And the same goes for my Harvard friend's argument: Leviticus 18:22 is not saying "don't do homosexual acts because a lot of cultures disapprove of them." As a matter of fact, it says the opposite, for Leviticus 18:26-27 states that the Canaanites engaged in those sorts of practices, which is why the land spewed them out. Paul and Leviticus are not saying, "Don't do this because it's socially unacceptable." Rather, they're contending that what is acceptable to the predominant culture is not always approved by God.

There are other aspects of Westmoreland-White's arguments that I'm not comfortable addressing right now. For example, he appeals to the usual "the Bible supported slavery" spiel, and I'm not sure what to say about that at this time. But my overall point is that most attempts to reconcile homosexuality with Scripture reflect bad exegesis, to say the least.

Homosexuality and Romans 1

I've been reading some of Michael Westmoreland-White's posts on homosexuality and the church. Today, I want to interact with points that he makes on Romans 1:26-27, a key proof-text that conservatives cite against homosexuality. I will also allude to other approaches that liberal Christians have taken.

There's one disclaimer that I want to make before I launch into this: It's hard to stereotype Michael Westmoreland-White's position. His overall view seems to be that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle, but many of his arguments are quite nuanced. His approach to the Bible isn't really all that dogmatic, but it acknowledges a variety of possible interpretations. You'll see what I mean when we look at one of his posts on Romans 1 (Another Addendum on GLBT Posts).

In addition, what I'll be addressing here is only one aspect of his overall interaction with Romans 1, for he brings up other points in his discussion of Richard Hays' arguments. For that, see GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A), GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B).

And so, here we go! Let's start with a quotation of Romans 1:26-27:

"For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (NRSV).

In Another Addendum on GLBT Posts, Westmoreland-White says the following:

"Would the biblical writers, especially the Apostle Paul, have known of long-term, same sex, partnerships based on love? I have followed the likes of Robin Scroggs and Victor Paul Furnish in saying, 'No.' However, several classicists have pointed out that such pairings were well-known in the Greco-Roman world–something I did not know when I began this series. ([D.R.] Randle and others repeatedly cited Plato’s Symposium. The thrust of that discussion still seems to me to be Plato’s condemnation of pederasty in 'mentoring,' but there are mentions of longterm male/male lovers. Ergo, Scroggs’ original claim, and mine by extension, was too strong.) However, this does not settle the question of whether Paul would have known them or had them in mind in his condemnations. It is certain that he is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution. If, in Rom. 1, he is also including non-exploitive same-sex pairings more like marriage (which is possible), it is not because he knows the concept of sexual orientation, but because he considers such acts to be evidence of idolatry and 'unnatural' behavior."

We see a variety of approaches here. Westmoreland-White says that Paul is condemning exploitative homosexual relationships, such as temple prostitution and pederasty. (In it's article on "homosexuality," the Oxford Classical Dictionary defines pederasty as "the sexual pursuit of 'boys' (paides or paidika; Lat. pueri) by 'men' (andres; viri).") And this is a common argument among a lot of liberal Christians: when Paul thought of homosexual sex, what went through his mind was male prostitution and pederasty, not a lifelong commitment between two men or two women. If Paul had known of gay marriage, the argument runs, then he probably wouldn't have condemned it. Or liberals may argue that Paul is actually condemning temple prostitution and pederasty, not gay marriage, which he doesn't even address; consequently, there's no biblical ban on gay marriage.

But what is Paul's problem with the homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27? Is it that they were exploitative? No, for he focuses on men having sex with men, and women with women. He deems that to be an unnatural activity. Paul doesn't mention exploitation here at all!

But that form of liberal argumentation is rather conservative in its approach to the Bible. You find it particularly among gay evangelical groups like the Metropolitan Christian Church. It acknowledges the authority of Scripture, and so it strives to demonstrate that Scripture doesn't condemn all homosexual activity, especially when it's within a committed relationship. Consequently, when the topic is homosexuality, it seeks to narrow the application of Scripture as much as possible. "Oh, Leviticus 18:22 isn't condemning all homosexual acts, but only a very specific kind--the type that occurs in idol worship." Or "Romans 1 doesn't address all homosexual activity, but only pederasty and temple prostitution." But as ex-homosexual Joe Dallas noted on The Bible Answer Man, the exegesis of the Metropolitan Christian crowd isn't quite so narrow when homosexuality is not the subject!

Another approach of liberal Christians is to say that Paul didn't know what he was talking about. This argument runs: "Paul didn't have the science that we now have, which says that homosexuals are born that way. As far as he was concerned, homosexuality was a product of idol worship. Paul was wrong!"

Actually, I've heard Metropolitan Christian types argue this way as well. One speaker I heard exclaimed, "I didn't worship idols! I went to Intervarsity. I loved God! But I was still gay."

I doubt that many homosexuals today worship Greco-Roman idols. But maybe Paul is saying that sin flows from a general human alienation from God. In Paul's time, that manifested itself among the Gentiles as idolatry, but perhaps it can be expressed in other ways as well. What kicks off the whole cycle of degeneration is specified in Romans 1:21: "for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." And Paul may not be saying that every single homosexual hates God, for he could be looking at the issue in communal rather than individual terms: the human race's general alienation from its creator has led to a number of sins.

And the fact is that all of us are alienated from God. That's what gets me about that one Metropolitan Christian speaker I mentioned earlier: "I wasn't alienated from God! That can't be why I'm gay! I went to Intervarsity." But he was alienated from God, as is the entire human race (Romans 3:23). A lot of what Paul describes in Romans 1 applies to me, let me tell you! I especially identify with the parts about being full of malice and envy (v 29). And I went to Intervarsity, so that must not be a cure! But sin exists because of the human race's alienation from God. And, even when we become reconciled with God through Christ, the sins of the flesh can still impact us, which is why Paul tells us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12).

Is Paul's account of homosexuality inconsistent with a modern scientific explanation, which maintains that homosexuality is a genetic condition? For one, I'm not sure if the scientific explanation is all that conclusive. Whenever I read about the issue, there are always experts who argue that it's not, as there are experts who say the opposite.

But, secondly, even if homosexuality is genetic, does that have to contradict what Paul is saying? Paul criticizes the flesh. What makes the flesh the way that it is can have a variety of explanations. And who says God can't use genetics when he gives people over to certain passions? That doesn't mean that we should act on the flesh's inclinations.

Next time, I'll address Westmoreland-White's treatment of "natural" in Romans 1:26-27.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Samson: Good or Bad?

For my weekly quiet time, I studied Judges 14. In this chapter, Samson goes into a vineyard and encounters a ferocious lion, which he kills through the spirit of the LORD. When he returns to see the lion's corpse, he notices bees and honey on the lion's body. He eats the honey and gives some to his parents, but he doesn't tell them where he got it, or that he killed a lion, for that matter.

As I listened to sermons and read the Protestant E-Sword commentaries, I noticed a difference of opinion about the character of Samson: was he bad or good in Judges 14?

Most said that he was bad. Samson was a lifelong Nazirite (see Judges 13:5, 7). According to Numbers 6:3-6, Nazirites are not supposed to eat grapes or touch a corpse. Moreover, touching the carcass of an unclean animal makes an Israelite impure until the evening, meaning he must wash his clothes (Leviticus 11:27-28).

The anti-Samson crowd argues as follows: here's Samson, who's not supposed to eat grapes. But he's putting himself in the path of temptation by strolling into a vineyard! He's like a lot of Christians, who go places they're not supposed to be. Then, he eats honey that's been defiled through its contact with a corpse (and of an unclean animal, no less!). And, to make matters worse, he gives some of that impure honey to his parents, without informing them that it's defiled! He seeks to justify his own sin by dragging his parents down with him. Sin loves company, after all! And Samson doesn't even have the courtesy to give his parents a chance to purify themselves. They're unclean, and they don't even know it!

Matthew Henry, by contrast, is a lot more charitable towards Samson. For Henry, Samson didn't tell his parents that he killed the lion because he was modest. And he was a pretty nice guy to share his honey with them. He knows how to honor his father and mother! Plus, Henry denies that the honey was even defiled, for he states, "He ate himself, asking no questions for conscience' sake; for the dead bones of an unclean beast had not that ceremonial pollution in them that the bones of a man had."

I'm not sure if Henry's right about an animal carcass being unable to pollute food. According to Leviticus 11:31-38, we read that an unclean swarming thing can defile stoves, clothing, water-jars, cisterns, and wet seeds. In this case, an unclean animal can pollute things, which can in turn defile the Israelites who use them. So maybe that applied to the lion's honey.

I've not combed through all of the Mishnah's rules on animal corpses and second-grade uncleanness, so I don't know off-hand if it thinks that all carrion can defile food. But M. Tohoroth 1:1 says that the carrion of a clean bird can convey food uncleanness, provided it's an egg's bulk in quanity. And Herbert Danby notes that "if it is an egg's bulk in quanity it is like other unclean foodstuffs and conveys uncleanness to clean foodstuffs, making them suffer 'second-grade uncleanness.'" So maybe a dead lion can defile honey!

But I find it interesting that there aren't a lot of Jewish sources that struggle with Samson's eating of the honey (as far as I can tell). Rashi doesn't wrestle with it. John Gill usually cites Jewish sources in his commentary, and he doesn't mention any that's troubled by Samson's deed (though he tries to force something like that out of Josephus' Antiquities 5.292). Am I missing something? I'd expect Jewish sources to be especially concerned about purity!

I'm also puzzled by Samson's status as a Nazirite. Yairah Amit in the Jewish Study Bible notes that "Samson is never depicted as a Nazirite in chs 14-15." I guess that's his answer to how a Nazirite like Samson can do seemingly un-Nazirite things: Judges 14-15 is independent of Judges 13, so it (Judges 14-15) doesn't assume that Samson was a Nazirite.

But even the chapter in which Samson is a Nazarite is puzzling to me. In Judges 13, where Samson actually is a Nazarite, the angel tells Samson's mother that her son will deliver Israel from the Philistines (v 5). Won't Samson have to kill Philistines to do that? And doesn't that mean he'll have contact with corpses, which Nazirites are not to have? I Maccabees 3:49 invites the Nazirites who had completed their vows to join the battle against the Seleucids. The implication is that Nazirites could not have gone to war during their vows, since they had to avoid corpses. Did God's command for Samson to be a Nazirite conflict with his overall purpose for Samson: that he deliver Israel from the Philistines?

There are a lot of puzzles here. I wonder if Jewish sources wrestle with them anywhere.

Manoah the Dunce

In Judges 13, Samson's father Manoah comes across as a complete dunce. His wife tells him that she saw a man of God who resembled an angel, and Manoah wants to feed him and find out his name. The angel essentially tells Manoah (in my paraphrase): "I don't eat, silly, and my name is too wonderful to share with you. Didn't you hear what your wife said? I'm an angel! Duh!"

When Manoah offers a sacrifice, the angel ascends into the flames, and Manoah gets scared. "We shall surely die, for we have seen God," he exclaims. But his wife responds (in my paraphrase): "Manoah, relax! If God had wanted to kill us, he wouldn't have accepted our sacrifice. Plus, didn't you hear the angel? God has promised us that we will have a son. We can't do that if we're not alive!"

Manoah must be the slow one of the family. And what's interesting is that Manoah didn't hear all of the information about Samson. The angel told Samson's mother that her son would be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines. But neither Samson's mother nor the angel told Manoah that little detail. Why not? Maybe they thought Manoah was so dense that he'd blab about his son to the Philistines, or to the other Israelites in the Philistines' hearing. "What's this you're saying about a soon deliverance?" the big, tough Pharisees would then say to the helpless Israelites.

The vast majority of commentators treat Manoah as a dolt. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Nahman calls him an ignorant man because he followed his wife's advice (Berachot 61a; Eiruvin 18b). That's slightly unfair. What was he supposed to do? Act on his own thinking? His wife was the only bright bulb in the family!

Jon Courson tries his best to find something good about Manoah. When Manoah asked his wife to seek further instructions from the man of God, Courson said that's a lesson to all of us: that we should pray for God's instructions rather than being hasty in our actions. But when he got to the "We're all going to die!" scene, even Courson admitted that Manoah is pretty dense!

This whole scene got me thinking about feminist approaches to Scripture. There are at least two ways that feminists read the Bible. One is "the Bible is good because it uplifts women." The other is "the Bible is bad because it downgrades women." Carol Delaney is an example of the latter point of view, for she argues in Abraham on Trial that Genesis 22 treats Isaac as the sole property of Abraham, since Abe doesn't even tell his wife that he's about to sacrifice their son. Maybe, but Judges 13 presents the opposite scenario, for Samson's mother doesn't share everything with Manoah. Plus, she comes across as more spiritually insightful than her husband.

Why does Judges present Manoah as such a dolt? One of my professors has argued that the Book of Judges is comic, and that may be a part of it. Even the ancient Israelites needed entertainment!

But I also think that the text is saying that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Manoah was dense and had to be led around by his wife (which will probably be me when I get married!). Well, Samson was much the same way. Delilah kept asking him for the secret of his strength, and she tried to weaken him on two separate occasions (with ropes and a hair loom--see Judges 15). And Samson thought she wouldn't cut off his hair once he told her his secret? How gullible can you be? Samson was dense, and he got outsmarted by a woman! He's a chip off the old block.

In one of my recovery groups, some people were talking about the fourth step, which is kind of like a personal psychological evaluation: you try to dig into why you are the way that you are. A few in the group were tracing their personalities to their fathers. "My dad was an obnoxious loudmouth, like I am." "My dad was a know-it-all, like me." "James, was your dad quiet and timid?" Well, he certainly is on the quiet side, but timid? Absolutely not! I got my timidity by stumbling around through life.

But could it be that we mirror our parents in some way, shape, or form? Maybe that should motivate us to be good examples for our kids. Of course, I don't want my kids to grow up to be timid, so I may wait before I have some!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Free to Love, Assurance

In one of my daily quiet times last night, I was really spewing out my resentments to God. But as I was ranting against this person and that person, and this situation and that situation, a thought came to me: wouldn't it be great to be free from all that resentment?

In a lot of sermons and discussions that I've encountered on Paul's letter to the Galatians, I hear the following spiel: Christ saved us by his gift of grace, so now we are free to love. We don't have to please God by obeying a bunch of laws, for God has already declared us righteous on the basis of our faith in Christ. But now we get to love other people.

That never made much sense to me. For me, love was always a burdensome law. In my eyes, there's no "get to" about it: I'd opt out of that requirement if I could. I have difficulty reaching out to people for a variety of reasons (e.g., social anxiety, a history of being rejected, not knowing what to say in social situations, my Asperger's, etc.). And I have a hard time convincing myself to love jerks. Give me the laws of the Old Testament, where I can please God through circumcision, kashrut, and Sabbath observance! Sure, the Hebrew Bible has laws about love, but they're pretty manageable (e.g., tithing, returning donkeys, etc.). But don't make me become a social extrovert who actually loves people from the heart. That's a burden all by itself!

Last night, however, the "we get to love" spiel began to make sense to me. There I was, getting all worked up about affronts to my dignity. I was keeping my record of wrongs, something I Corinthians 13 tells me not to do! But then I thought: "It would be great to be able to let all of that go--to say, 'Okay, that person did not accept me, but I'm going to love him anyway, for that makes me feel better, and I'm tired of basing my happiness on what others think about me.'"

And, by "love," I don't mean that I have to be "buddy, buddy" with a person. I'm saying that I can be friendly to my "enemies" whenever I encounter them, without feeling that I'm sacrificing my personal dignity when I refuse to "tell them off."

There's a strong part of me that would like to make others feel as bad as they've made me feel--perhaps even worse. That will even the scores! Then I'll show them that I'm a person of value, and that they cannot attack my dignity with impunity! That will tell them what I think about them and how they act! And that's the way that many in the world approach life: they want to uphold themselves and their own personal dignity. But, according to Christianity, I as a Christian have died to the world and its ways of doing things (Romans 6; Colossians 2). I don't have to act the way that the world acts. I can choose another way, even if it involves me not being on top (I Corinthians 6:7). That's freedom--from the world's demands, from my own sense of dignity, from the bitterness and resentment that can eat on my soul.

My mind then went to another topic: assurance of salvation is necessary if a Christian is to overcome sin. There are Christians who assume the opposite: in their minds, if a person is absolutely sure that he is saved, then he may lose all fear of God, and he'd feel free to sin. And they have a point, for the Bible is full of warnings.

But Paul seems to believe that assurance of personal salvation is necessary for Christians to overcome sin. Take a look at parts of Romans 6:3-14:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life...We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin...The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (NRSV).

To overcome sin, a Christian must believe that he has died with Christ: his old sinful self is dead, which entails that God has forgiven him (Colossians 2:13ff.). That's salvation! A Christian who wants a victorious life can't approach salvation as I often do: "I don't know if I'm saved or not, since I have a lot of sin in my life, plus I don't bear much good fruit." I have to assure myself that God has saved me, since that's the only way I'll have the self-image that's necessary to overcome sin and produce good fruit. And, yes, self-image is a part of all this, for Paul says in Romans 6:11 that "you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." I have to see myself in a certain way in order to live a righteous life: I am dead to sin and alive to Christ, since I have died and risen with him.

Sure, Paul exhorts people to examine themselves to see if they're in the faith (II Corinthians 13:5), and that has to fit into my religion somewhere. But I also see that having assurance of my own salvation is not a bad thing that will encourage me to sin. Paul says that sin will not dominate us precisely because we are under grace. If I want to sin less, then I need to believe that Christ has loved me, forgiven me, and given me hope.

Hebrews and Animal Sacrifices

The epistle to the Hebrews contends that animal sacrifices cannot take away sin. Why not? In Hebrews 10:1-4, we see its rationale:

"Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (NRSV).

I want to concentrate on the part about animal sacrifices being offered "year after year." The author of Hebrews wonders: if sin offerings truly cleansed the Israelites of sin, then why did they have to offer them every year on the Day of Atonement? Shouldn't once be enough? By contrast, v 12 says that "Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins." Unlike animal sacrifices, Christ doesn't need to be offered on a continual basis, for his one sacrifice of himself was sufficient to atone for sin.

I don't entirely understand Hebrews' reasoning. Just because the Israelites offered animal sacrifices every year, does that show that the sacrifices were ineffective for atonement? Maybe they cleansed the sins of the previous year. But when a new year arrived, so came a fresh batch of sins, and they too had to be removed. Just because a ritual is continually needed, that doesn't make it ineffective. I need to take a bath on a regular basis, but that doesn't mean the bath doesn't do its job for the day. Does the bath fail to remove dirt just because I have to do it more than once?

And the same is true in Christianity: sure, we have been cleansed through the sacrifice of Christ, but we still need to ask for forgiveness on a continual basis (Matthew 6:12, 14-15; I John 1:9). Why must we do that, if we've been forgiven once and for all? Isn't continual confession and repentance similar to the regular offering of the animal sacrifices? In both, we have to keep the slate wiped clean.

Hebrews says that animal sacrifices didn't work because the Israelites were not cleansed once and for all, plus they still had a consciousness of sin even after they had offered them. But isn't that true of Christians as well? They need to ask for forgiveness on a continual basis, which shows (1.) that they need repeated cleansing, and (2.) that they still have a consciousness of sin.

Of course, Hebrews 8:8-13 is clear that the old covenant by itself was defective because of the sinfulness of the Israelites. That's why the new covenant is about God writing his laws on people's hearts: we need a new nature in order to become sinless. The Israelites could offer their sacrifices year-in and year-out, but did that change their sinful nature? If it did, then why did they have to sacrifice sin offerings every single year?

Maybe Hebrews is saying that only Christ can take away sins--in the sense of bringing Christians to a state of actual sinlessness. And, indeed, Hebrews does use such terminology as "perfecting." Yet, at the same time, Hebrews also seems to say that Christ's death brings forgiveness (not just practical cleansing from sin) in a way that animal sacrifices do not. Hebrews 10:18 says, "Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin," which indicates that, in contrast to the Old Covenant sin offerings, Christ's one sacrifice was sufficient for atonement.

And so I'm back where I started: If Christ's one sacrifice cleansed Christians of sin once and for all, then why do they need to keep on receiving forgiveness? And how does what Christians do differ from the Israelites' continual offering of animal sacrifices?

Maybe Hebrews doesn't hold that Christians need to keep their slate clean. Perhaps it thinks that their slate is already clean--and that it always will be, unless they deliberately leave Christ (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-27). Hebrews is clear that Christians will still sin, so it encourages them that they have a faithful and merciful high priest who is eager to help them (Hebrews 4:15-16). But maybe (unlike Matthew and I John) it doesn't assume that they need to receive continual forgiveness; rather, as far as Hebrews is concerned, Christians have already been forgiven--once and for all time--and they come to Christ primarily for compassion and aid as they struggle against sin.

Could it be that Matthew and I John resemble Catholics in their view on forgiveness, whereas Hebrews is more like a lot of Protestants on that issue?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Atonement: What's Sufficient?

In yesterday's post, The Last Sin Eater, I took the evangelical, Anselmian view that only God is great enough to atone for people's sins. Today, I want to express my irritation with evangelicals on this issue.

I once attended a Messianic Jewish gathering on Yom Kippur, and the rabbi was talking about the need to witness to Jews. "Some of them seriously believe that waving a slaughtered chicken over their heads can atone for their sins," he said. He was referring to a custom that exists in certain orthodox Jewish communities.

But I wonder how he'd convince orthodox Jews that a slaughtered chicken can't atone for their sins. Would he say that only God incarnate can serve as a sufficient sacrifice for humanity? An orthodox Jew could then ask, "Says who? Why should I believe God abides by that rule?"

Those of us who are Christians have to believe in Hebrews 10:4, which says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (NRSV). But that's not part of the Hebrew Bible. Sure, there are plenty of Old Testament passages in which God is not appeased by animal sacrifices. But their point is not that the offerings never work: they're just conveying the importance of repentance and morality as well. In many parts of the Hebrew Bible, we read that a person who offers animal sacrifices while neglecting to walk in justice, mercy, and faith is not pleasing to God.

I can understand why a Jew would read the Hebrew Bible and conclude that animal sacrifices bring about forgiveness. Throughout Leviticus 4, we read about rituals in which an Israelite brings an animal for a sin offering. The priest then makes atonement for him, and the Israelite is forgiven. II Chronicles 29:23-24 says: "Then the male goats for the sin offering were brought to the king and the assembly; they laid their hands on them, and the priests slaughtered them and made a sin offering with their blood at the altar, to make atonement for all Israel." The priests performed the sin offering in order to make atonement for all of Israel. So animals have no atoning value? And, in Ezekiel's vision of restored Israel, God commands the future prince to offer sacrifices for atonement (Ezekiel 45:15, 17). Does the blood of bulls and goats truly fail to take away sin, as far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned?

In Exodus 30, we read that money can perform an atoning function. V 12 says, "When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them." The word translated as "ransom" is koper, or "atonement." And what atones for the necessary evil of taking a census? Half a shekel (vv 13-16). "Only God can be a sufficient ransom for sin"? How about money?

My problem with a lot of evangelicals is that they assume Christianity in their attempts to defend Christianity. "Only God can be an adequate substitute for sin" is a Christian presupposition. Non-Christian Jews don't hold it, for, when they read their Bibles, they see that animals and money can bring about atonement.

Tomorrow, I want to wrestle some with Hebrews' argument on animal sacrifices.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Last Sin Eater

This will be one of my more evangelical posts, with Anselmian atonement and all! Some of you will like it, some of you will hate it, and some will think it's the same old evangelical spiel. But maybe you'll get something out of it. You never know!

I just watched The Last Sin Eater, which was directed by Michael Landon, Jr., son of (you guessed it!) Michael Landon, Sr. It stars Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher and Golden Globe nominee Henry Thomas (Elliott from E.T.), and it's based on a 1998 novel by Francine Rivers.

The movie is set in 1850's Appalachia, which is populated by Welsh immigrants. The Welsh have a custom in which a designated "sin eater" (who's drawn by lot) takes away the sins of people who die. The sin eater has to live a lonely life in a cave, without family and friends.

There's a little girl named Cadi, who accidentally killed her little sister. Cadi fought with her sister over a doll and expressed her hatred, then she ran to a bridge that was over a raging river. When the sister tried to cross the bridge to approach Cadi, she fell into the water and died. Cadi's mom blames her for the death, and so Cadi bears a lot of guilt.

Cadi goes to the sin eater to get rid of her sin, and he tells her that he only absolves dead people. But he finally agrees to help her, and he performs an atonement ritual. But she still feels guilty.

That's when she meets Elliott from E.T. Elliott plays a preacher who's just moved into the area. He tells Cadi that no mere man can remove her burden, since only the Lord Jesus Christ can do that. Cadi then feels relieved, and she runs with joy with her guardian angel/imaginary friend.

But the movie doesn't stop there. After the resident thug kills Elliott, we get to see why the community resumed the old Irish "sin eater" custom when it moved to America. Basically, the thug's father killed a group of innocent Native Americans, and he feared hell-fire and brimstone while he was on his deathbed. He thought it was high time to appoint a sin eater!

And we also learn that the thug has a deep dark secret (surprise! Must run in the family). He rigged the sin eater raffle so that the boyfriend of the woman he loved got stuck with the ill-desired role. The thug didn't marry the woman, mind you, but he at least ensured that nobody else would.

At the end, Cadi tells the sin eater that he as a mere man cannot take away sin. People loaded him with a burden that he was never meant to bear.

The movie was really preachy, but it made me think about atonement. All sorts of religions have rituals in which someone bears the sins of the community, ensuring that divine favor continues to flow to it. In second millennium B.C.E. Babylon, the priest smote and humiliated the king during the New Year's festival in an attempt to avert divine anger. Leviticus 16 has a ritual in which a goat dies for Israel's sins, which are then placed on another goat, who carries them away into the desert.

On Jimmy Swaggart's television program, there was a guest-host named Roy, a Native American who rarely said anything. But he once stepped out of character and told about his life as a Native American. His community was about to beat up a Native American for the sins of the clan, and Roy said that was unnecessary. "The Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins, so this guy doesn't need to suffer on my account," he glibly remarked.

And I think about the movie, The Lottery, which is based on the short story that gave school-kids nightmares. It's about a small town's annual lottery, which determined who would be stoned to death. One of the characters explained the rationale behind the lottery: it was designed to maintain peace and prosperity in the community. Apparently, she believed the town was better off when it appeased the gods with a human sacrifice.

But can a mere animal or human being atone for the sins of a group? According to the Book of Hebrews, the answer is no: Hebrews 10:4 says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (NRSV). While the red heifer of the Old Testament could purify flesh, the blood of Christ is what cleanses the conscience from dead works so that people can serve the living God (Hebrews 9:13-14). The sin eater was unable to relieve Cadi of her burden, for only Christ could do that.

I was puzzled about why people were willing to abandon the sin eater custom so easily. After all, if they believed he was able to take away sin, wouldn't that alleviate their feelings of guilt? But maybe they still had lingering doubts. "Are we sure this guy can remove our sins?," they may have thought deep-down. As Anselm argued, only God can provide a sufficient sacrifice that can cleanse people of sin and guilt. Only he is completely righteous. He alone is superior to all human beings put together. He's the only adequate substitute. And that's why it's important that Jesus as the God-man died for humanity.

Hebrews doesn't explicitly say this, but it does maintain that Christ could take away sin in a way that the animal sacrifices could not. And it holds that he was the creator, even going so far as to apply to Christ a psalm that's addressed to God. So maybe Hebrews moves in an Anselmian direction!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wrong on Race

Tomorrow, I'll be turning in Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past, so I want to fulfill my long-standing vow to do a write-up about it.

Let me start with four personal anecdotes. When I was at DePauw University, I took an Intro to Poli Sci class, which was taught by a very liberal professor. He wasn't a part of the New Left, mind you, for he said in the 1970's that anti-war protesters belonged in prison. Plus, he was a major critic of postmodernism. Essentially, he was your run-of-the-mill, New Deal Democrat, who also supported civil rights for African-Americans.

He basically told us that the Republican Party was racist. He said that most Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (including Bob Dole, who was running for President at the time), while most Democrats voted for it. He also stated that the Democrats of the South became Republicans because of the GOP's support for "states' rights," which was code for allowing segregation in the South. He called this the "Southern strategy," in which the GOP used "code-words" to win the racist Southern states.

When I informed him that Bob Dole actually voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told me that this little detail didn't matter, since most Republicans voted against it. In retrospect, I wish I had fought him a little harder on that point. After all, if a major figure of the GOP such as its candidate for President voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then why should we be calling the party "racist"? Moreover, I checked the Congressional Record and found that a lot of Democrats voted against it. But he'd probably respond that those were Southern Democrats, who later became Republicans. I just couldn't win!

Now let's fast forward to my Jewish Theological Seminary years. I was in a class with a Columbia student, and I somehow let it slip that I was a Republican. He then launched into a major tirade. "Why are you against black people? Why are you against gay people?," he asked. I didn't fight him, since I was trying to be a nice person. But, in retrospect, I wish I fought back (rhetorically, of course).

In New York, I frequently went out to eat with people from my Asperger's group. One of them was a provocative, die-hard Democrat, and he said on a few occasions, "You know, Republicans say they're not racist, but they use code-words for racist ideas. What do you think their talk about 'welfare queens' and crime is all about?" I didn't argue with him, but I don't see how such rhetoric is inherently racist. There were white people who plundered the welfare system as well, plus everyone should be concerned about crime, regardless of what their race is. Also, who are the ones injecting race into that kind of conversation? Not the Republicans, let me tell you, but the Democrats, who like to see racism where it doesn't exist.

Now let's rewind to my Harvard years. I was taking a class on early American history, and we were having a discussion on whether Thomas Jefferson was a racist. A conservative student said that we shouldn't judge Jefferson according to modern standards, whereas a liberal one was pointing out that there were abolitionists in Jefferson's time, and Tom was not among them. The liberal student's good point was pretty much ignored, as people focused instead on her overall argument: that the founding fathers were racist bigots. I sided with the conservative student, as did most of the class (surprisingly, since this was liberal Harvard). But, as the years went by, I often thought about that whole incident: maybe I was wrong. Jefferson could have been an abolitionist, but he wasn't one. So why is criticizing Jefferson on race an act of judging him by modern standards? His own time offered him an anti-slavery position, and he rejected it.

Now onto Bartlett's book! His argument is basically that the Democratic Party has a racist past. Thomas Jefferson was a racist, who beat his slaves and freed only a few of them at his death. And he wasn't just acting according to the racist mindset of his time either, for a lot of slave-holders freed all of their slaves when they died. Plus, George Washington had a high view of African-Americans because he had fought beside them in the American Revolution. According to Bartlett, Jefferson was behind his own time on the race issue.

Democrat Andrew Johnson was a racist who tried to hinder the "radical Republicans" from bringing racial equality to the South. For some reason, the liberal history books I used in school always sided with Johnson. Go figure! And one of Johnson's biggest defenders was Professor Woodrow Wilson, who, as President, instituted segregation throughout the federal government.

Franklin Roosevelt frequently used the "N-word," barred blacks from Warm Springs (notwithstanding what the movie Warm Springs depicts), appointed a KKK member to the Supreme Court, and refused to support an anti-lynching law. His New Deal hurt blacks in a number of ways. The minimum wage deprived blacks of jobs, since they could no longer compete with whites by offering to work for lower wages. Regardless of what's on Roots: The Next Generation, the New Deal farm policy basically screwed black farmers, for "the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) only paid those who owned the land, thus excluding sharecroppers and tenant farmers" (sorry, Brock Peters!) (114). The Tennessee Valley Authority refused to hire blacks even as it forced black farmers off of their land. And the Federal Housing Administration created ghettos because it favored "single family homes in racially homogeneous neighborhoods," while depriving inner-city areas of housing loans (115).

As a Senator in the 1950's, John F. Kennedy "denied that Congress had any role to play in implementing the Brown decision, voted against bringing the 1957 civil rights bill to a vote in the Senate, and supported amendments that weakened its effectiveness" (160-161). And guess who was a big figure in weakening the 1957 civil rights bill? Lyndon Johnson! Kennedy didn't really do anything about civil rights until 1963, when it was politically convenient.

While Bartlett does not view the Republican Party as saintly, he thinks it's gotten a worse rap than it deserves. Republican Theodore Roosevelt appointed a lot of African-Americans to government posts. Support for an anti-lynching law was a feature of the Republican platform for decades. In 1964, in the House of Representatives, almost as many Republicans as Democrats voted for the Civil Rights bill (138 Republicans, and 152 Democrats). And Richard Nixon actually added teeth to the Brown decision, for he "cut off federal aid to five Southern school districts that refused to integrate" (174).

Bartlett also dismisses the "Southern strategy" as a myth. According to him, the South became Republican because of its urbanization and increasing wealth, not on account of the GOP being racist. I remember encountering the same argument in Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Majority.

But Bartlett's book is not exactly "Republicans good, Democrats bad," for he lavishes praise on Harry Truman, who supported civil rights when it was a political liability for him to do so. And, while I like the book because it can silence liberal Democratic self-righteousness on the race issue, Bartlett has a broader agenda than arguing that his party's better. He encourages the GOP to take the moral high ground on race, specifically by supporting reparations for African-Americans. As far as Bartlett is concerned, Republicans need to start reaching out to a wider variety of people, who are becoming more and more receptive to Republican ideas.

I hope you can see by my summary that I really enjoyed this book! I get a perverse sense of pleasure whenever the sacred name of Franklin Roosevelt is dragged through the mud (which probably isn't very Christian of me!). But I want to make two points about the book, one of them thoughtful, and the other critical.

First of all, in reading this book, I had to undergo a dramatic paradigm shift. In this day-and-age, it's not politically-correct to be a racist. Politicians who make a comment that can be remotely construed as bigoted have to apologize lest they jeopardize their political careers. But the time that Bartlett describes was quite different: in those days, people had to apologize for not being racist. The Democrats wanted to hold on to their Southern support, after all! So when the racist politician Tom Watson accused Woodrow Wilson of sending a letter of condolence to Booker T. Washington, "Wilson's campaign vehemently denied that he had done such a thing" (98). Those were different times, it appears!

Second, while Bartlett does well to offer a nuanced picture of the political parties and race, elements of his book indicate that the reality was even more complex than he presents it. For example, he doesn't really address the anti-slavery things that Jefferson did, such as Jefferson's criticism of slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlett just says that the big picture indicates Jefferson was pro-slavery.

Bartlett also pooh-poohs the defense of FDR that says Roosevelt only backed off from an anti-lynching law because he wanted Southern support for the New Deal. He says, "The idea that Southern Democrats would block legislation widely viewed as essential for economic recovery in the middle of the Great Depression just to protest Roosevelt's support for an antilynching bill is ridiculous" (128). Yet, he says earlier that Southern Democrats "were not always inclined to support the New Deal" (57). Which is it? The reality was probably complex, since there were many Southern racists who were otherwise progressive on politics and economics (as Bartlett documents). But there was a Southern conservative element as well.

Bartlett calls the Southern strategy a myth, which implies that Nixon didn't try to win the South through racist code-words. Yet, he quotes Nixon as saying in January 1970, "I don't give a damn about the Southern strategy--I care a great deal about decent education" (175). Nixon is saying that he'll support integration regardless of the Southern strategy. Why would he say that, if the Southern strategy was a sheer myth and Nixon wasn't applying it (on some level)?

Whatever its flaws, Bruce Bartlett's Wrong on Race knocks down a lot of liberal myths, for which I'm exceedingly grateful. I'll refer to it the next time a liberal lectures me about Republicans being racists!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Signs of Revival

Yvette of Pascalian Awakenings has given me a link to a discussion about the Lakeland revival. It's from the web site of Michael Brown, the author of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.

I don't know much about the revival in Lakeland. Some Christians like it. Others hate it. Some think it's crazy, authoritarian, and unorthodox. Others say it's been accompanied by miraculous healings. In the world of blogdom, Jim West and Peter Kirk have written about Todd Bentley, a key figure in the revival, who looks like a rider from Hell's Angels. And, whenever someone starts a thread on Todd Bentley on my Christian dating site, you can guarantee it will get tons of replies!

I want to make two points before I quote Michael Brown's criteria for a true revival. First of all, just because something's strange, that doesn't mean it's not of God. On two occasions, the spirit of God came upon Saul and inspired him to prophesy, and he ripped off his clothes in one of those incidents (I Samuel 10, 19). That prompted people to ask if Saul was one of the prophets. For them, "prophet" and "weird" could go in the same sentence. God instructed Isaiah to walk around naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20:2). I'm sure he got some odd stares when he did that! And, on Pentecost, people thought that the disciples were drunk when they saw them speaking in tongues (Acts 2:13). God doesn't always work in conventional ways.

Second, critics of the Lakeland revival are not necessarily blaspheming the Holy Spirit (which is a frequent charismatic accusation, within a variety of settings). Criticism holds movements accountable. God actually anointed the kings of Israel and Judah, yet that didn't stop the prophets from criticizing them. People should take heed not to become hardened to God or the possibility that he might be working in Lakeland. But no one should be insulated from criticism, not even revival leaders. Even Jesus invited critique when he said, "Which of you convicts me of sin?" (John 8:47). The people who shun criticism are usually those who have something to hide.

Now, here are Michael Brown's criteria for true revival, which are based on guidelines established by Jonathan Edwards:

"1) Is it exalting Jesus? Does He have the preeminence and are people being drawn to Him and His centrality?

"2) Is there an increasing hunger for the Word of God and an increasing desire to submit to the Word of God?

"3) Are people repenting of sin and turning to holiness by God’s grace and power?

"4) Is there an increasing burden to touch and save the lost?

"If so, then God is at work, since Satan can’t cast out Satan and the flesh can’t give birth to Spirit."

Brown doesn't mention healing, since it may not be an actual criterion for a genuine revival. After all, people can embrace God without miracles. But isn't healing at least one sign that God is involved in a phenomenon? Brown says that Satan can't cast out Satan, but the biblical context for that statement is Jesus' healing of a blind and mute demoniac. Jesus said he was plundering the kingdom of Satan when he did so, and that "if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Matthew 12:28). I know that Michael Brown wrote a book on Jesus' healing ministry, which I own but have not yet read. I'm puzzled about why he doesn't comment on the healings at Lakeland, since healing in the Gospels is one way God delivers people from Satanic oppression.

But Jesus also preached repentance, godliness, and the possibility of a new life. Jesus said that "wisdom is vindicated by all her children" (Luke 7:32, 35). I wonder if Jesus meant that his message was confirmed by the new lives of the sinners who repented through it. The Pharisees were critics of John the Baptist and Jesus, whose ministries brought about dramatic conversions among people who ordinarily wanted nothing to do with religion. Tax collectors were leaving behind their lucrative business to follow Jesus. Prostitutes were turning to God. People were ceasing from their evil ways and learning to do good. This would be like hardened drug dealers experiencing a complete spiritual turn-around. It would be miraculous! And this is a sign that revival is taking place! Notwithstanding the Pharisees' criticisms, the ministries of John and Jesus were vindicated by those who repented (wisdom's children).

I don't have to agree with everything that goes on in Lakeland. But if God is using it to bring people to himself, then praise God!

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