Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fantasy Island

I was doing some reading on Fantasy Island today. Not long ago, I wrote a tribute to Ricardo Montalban, whom I knew from Star Trek and Planet of the Apes movies. A variety of news shows that I watched, however, emphasized that he starred in the 1970's-1980's sitcom Fantasy Island. They showed him looking urbane in a nice white suite, saying, "Welcome to Fantasy Island."

I knew only a little bit about the show. I remember watching a program on TV Land about the most famous catchphrases in television history, and one of them was "ze plane! ze plane!" from Fantasy Island. A little person would say that as he rang a bell.

But there was a lot that I didn't know about the show. Were the people coming to the island of their own free will? Was there something magical about it, like that planet on Star Trek, in which the crew members got to live their fantasies?

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the wikipedia article (in italics):

Airing from 1978 to 1984, the original series starred Ricardo Montalban as Mr. Roarke, the enigmatic overseer of a mysterious island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, where people from all walks of life could come and live out their fantasies, albeit for a price.

So I guess the guests came out of their own free will.

In the two pilot movies Roarke was actually a rather sinister figure, but once the series went into production he soon became much more benevolent. In later seasons there were often supernatural overtones. Roarke also seemed to have his own supernatural powers of some sort, although it was never explained how this came to be. In one episode, when a guest says 'Thank God things worked out well', Roarke and Tattoo share a very odd look and Roarke says in a cryptic way 'Thank God indeed'. In the same episode, Roarke uses some mysterious powers to help Tattoo with his magic act. In at least one episode, Mr. Roarke faces "The Devil", who has come to the Island to challenge him for his immortal soul. It is mentioned this is not the first time they confront each other, and Mr. Roarke has always been the winner.

So there is a supernatural and religious element, kind of like Lost.

Roarke had a strong moral code, but he was always merciful. He usually tried to teach his guests important life lessons through the medium of their fantasies, frequently in a manner that exposes the errors of their ways, and on occasions when the island hosted terminally ill guests he would allow them to live out one last wish. Roarke's fantasies were not without peril, but the greatest danger usually came from the guests themselves; in some cases people actually got themselves killed due to their own negligence, aggression or arrogance. When necessary, Roarke would directly intervene when the fantasy became dangerous to the guest.

So people learn lessons on this show! I love those kinds of programs. And I like Roarke being a benevolent character, since Ricardo Montalban strikes me as a nice guy (when he wasn't choking McCoy or firing on the Enterprise, that is).

The usual format of each episode consisted of an introduction in which Roarke would describe to Tattoo (or another assistant) the nature of each person's fantasy, usually with a cryptic comment suggesting the person's fantasy will not turn out as they expected. The episode would then alternate between two or three independent storylines as the guests experienced their fantasies and interacted with Roarke. Often, the fantasies would turn out to be morality lessons for the guests (for example, one featured a man who clamoured for the "good old days" to be taken back to the Salem witch trials), sometimes to the point of (apparently) putting their lives at risk, only to have Roarke step in at the last minute and reveal the deception. It is mentioned a few times that a condition of visiting Fantasy Island is that guests never reveal what goes on there. A small number of guests decided to make the irrevocable choice to stay permanently, living out their fantasy until death; one such person was an actor who had been in a Tarzan-type TV series in the 1960s.

Maybe there's a lesson about unanswered prayer here: sometimes, what we want is not the best thing! And it doesn't always bring what we expect. I watched some of the Fantasy Island introductions on You-Tube, and one of them was about an old man who wanted to be a swinger. I wonder what lessons he learned! Did Fantasy Island make a statement against the sexual revolution?

I also like the part about keeping Fantasy Island a secret. There's something about stories in which people undergo life-changing experiences, but cannot tell others specifically what they were. Yet, the others know that something life- changing has happened to them. Maybe that's what's going on in the synoptic Gospels, with the Messianic Secret!

Fantasy Island employed many celebrity (if not A-list film stars of the time) guest stars, often bringing them back repeatedly for different roles. Such guests included TV stars like Bill Bixby and Bob Denver, music stars like Sonny Bono and Robert Goulet, classic film stars like Peter Lawford and Ray Bolger, young starlets like Victoria Principal and Barbi Benton, character actors such as Howard Duff and David Doyle, and soap opera actors like Dack Rambo.

That sounds cool, since I like seeing actors I recognize from other shows. "Look who's on Desperate Housewives! That's Mallory from Family Ties!" And I see all sorts of recognizable faces on 7th Heaven.

Fantasy Island sounds like a good show! Maybe I'll check out some episodes from the library, once I get a DVD player, assuming that the shows are out on DVD.

Friday, January 30, 2009

NPR on Keynes

I enjoyed this story from NPR: Obama Gives Keynes His First Real-World Test. It discusses the rise, fall, and rise again of Keynesian economics, the idea that the government can improve the economy through more government spending.

Vaal, Part II

For background, see Vaal, Part I.

As I think about the Star Trek episode about Vaal, most of what goes through my mind are religious polarities. Unlike Paul Tillich, however, I have a hard time synthesizing them or finding a middle ground.

In the episode, the people of Gamma Trianguli VI feed their god Vaal and get balance, peace, prosperity, and long life in return. Captain Kirk feels that this whole set-up is hindering their growth and development, so he destroys Vaal.

In the Bible, I see two views. One states that the worship of God makes things click for people. The second says that we need pain and adversity in order to grow.

The first one is in the Torah. Leviticus 26 goes into all of the blessings that come from obeying God's commandments, as well as the curses that occur on account of disobedience. If Israel obeys, she will get food and peace and prosperity and life, much like the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli VI experienced (only the Israelites have lots of children). And you remember how the people of Gamma Trianguli VI had to feed Vaal in order to receive paradise? The Torah treats certain sacrifices as food for God (Leviticus 3:11, 16).

On the other hand, there is also a view in the Bible that adversity makes us better and stronger people. As Romans 5:3-5 states: "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (NRSV).

So you see one view in the Bible that looks similar to the Vaalite position: we need to worship God because that's what guarantees our peace and sustenance. But you also see the Kirkian view: we need adversity because that's how we grow.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ecclesiastes 9:4-10 and the Afterlife

Soul sleep is the belief that the dead are unconscious until their resurrection. For advocates of this view, the soul does not exist somewhere in a conscious state during that interval.

Armstrongites like to appeal to Ecclesiastes 9:5 to support soul sleep. They usually quote only part of the verse, the part that says "the dead know not any thing[.]" I'd like to post the verse in its context, then I'll make some comments. I'll use the King James Version because that's the one Armstongites tend to gravitate towards

4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
7 Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
8 Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

This Ecclesiastes passage seems not only to dismiss the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection as well. V 4 says that the living have hope, which implies that the dead do not. V 5 states that the dead have no more reward, which contradicts the idea that there's a resurrection in which the righteous will be rewarded. V 6 affirms that the dead have no more portion in anything done under the sun. Would the author of Ecclesiastes say this, if he believed the dead would rise again and once more be able to have a portion of life? (I guess one way to get around this, however, is to point out that the sun will be abolished after the second resurrection; Revelation 21:23; 22:5). VV 7-10 essentially say, "Enjoy life while you can, because it's not going to last forever!" Why would Qoheleth say this, if he thought there would be an afterlife?

Jews have had different ideas on what to do with Ecclesiastes. There was dispute about its canonicity at one point. The Jewish Encyclopedia article on death mentions the following interpretation: "The dead are supposed to take an active interest in worldly affairs. The assertion of Kohelet that 'The dead know not anything' (Eccl. ix, 5) is interpreted. 'The wicked who are considered dead while yet alive'" (Shab. 13b?). Here, Ecclesiastes is treated as inspired, since Jewish exegetes try to reconcile it with their belief in the consciousness of dead people. Essentially, they say that Ecclesiastes 9:5 means that spiritually dead people are pretty dumb.

Sounds interesting, but it doesn't exactly fit the context. Is there a way for Christians to find religious value in Ecclesiastes, without embracing what it says about death being the end? Perhaps. I Corinthians 15 says Christ's resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection, and Hebrews 12:14-15 states that Christ delivered those who were in bondage on account of their fear of death. Maybe Ecclesiastes can remind us that many people prior to the coming of Christ were afraid to die, and we can then appreciate all the more that Christ destroyed death through his resurrection.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Participatory Model of the Atonement

I've been thinking about the issue of penal substitution on account of James McGrath's post, What Do You Say That I Did? Felix's past posts on the Christus Victor model have also been swimming around in my mind.

Penal substitution is the view of Christ's death that most evangelicals believe in: Christ endured God's wrath in place of sinners, so now God lets those who believe in Christ off the hook. Included in that is an assertion that Garner Ted Armstrong used to make (though it didn't originate with him): only God could atone for the sins of all of humanity, since God is worth more than all people put together.

But is there an alternative view? Actually, there are plenty of them. Peter Abelard, for instance, treated atonement as a subjective thing rather than God's objective forgiveness of sin: Christ shows God's love for us by dying, and we then embrace God because our hearts are warmed by such a self-sacrificial act. The atonement, for Abelard, occurs when we respond to God's love.

That sounds fine, but it doesn't really explain why Christ had to die, nor does it address the biblical passages that associate Christ's death with God's forgiveness of sin (Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:9, et al.). Neither, for that matter, do a lot of other views of the atonement (e.g., ransom, moral governance, etc.).

But the participatory model very well may. As James McGrath states: "For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus' death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: 'one died for all, and therefore all died'. That's almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, 'one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die'." Dr. McGrath tries to make the atonement a matter of us sacrificing ourselves (or something like that), but that's not the point I'm interested in right now. The point I want to make is this: In the New Testament, maybe atonement is not so much a matter of Christ dying in our place, but rather us dying and rising with Christ.

Like much of evangelical Christianity, the Armstrongite movement essentially held two views of the atonement simultaneously: one said that Christ died in place of sinners, and another said that believers die and rise with Christ. In the first model, sinners don't die. In the second one, they do (in a manner of speaking).

But maybe the second one is the right one. And, as Armstrongites liked to point out, the second one involves God's forgiveness of our sins. When our old selves die with Christ, the law no longer condemns us with the threat of death. How can it? The person who committed those sins is already dead, in a manner of speaking, since he died with Christ. Now, on account of Christ's resurrection, he can have a new life, free from sin and the condemnation of the law.

But accepting a non-penal view of the atonement may require a lot of rethinking of cherished ideas. Here's something I wrote under Dr. McGrath's post:

"When Jesus said he was going to drink the cup, was he talking about the cup of God's wrath that the Hebrew Bible harps upon? Or is there another interpretation--such as he was about to undergo a tough mission[?] When Jesus asked God why he had forsaken him, was that because he was experiencing the hell of God's wrath at the crucifixion? Or was it just him crying out from despair? When there was darkness, was that the darkness of the Day of the Lord? Or is there another significance?"

Tough questions. But a non-penal view of the atonement has at least one strength: It doesn't have Jesus doing something that God earlier repudiated. I went on to say:

"But there's something positive about an alternative model of the atonement: God rejects penal substitution in Exodus 32:33. A lot of evangelicals try to do gymnastics to get around that--'Well, of course God didn't let Moses die for the people, since he was a sinner himself, plus his sacrifice wouldn't have been good enough to atone for all those people, for only God can do that'--but that's not what God says. He says, 'Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.'"

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fallen Pastors

When news came out about the sordid details of Ted Haggard's private life, an evangelical friend of mine remarked, "What worries me is that this will make people more jaded about evangelicalism."

But, you know, what really disturbs me is not so much what Haggard did. Rather, it's that a lot of evangelical pastors don't give people the space to be human. "You have to forgive this person." "Don't lust." "If you feel this way, then you don't really love God." "If you were truly on fire for God, then you'd be excited about this!" "Get along with your spouse, for the fruit of the spirit is love, patience, etc."

Look, people have very real internal and external problems, and many evangelicals assume they can be solved simply by going to the front of the church and crying during a prayer.

The problem is that a lot of the pastors saying these sorts of things have many of the same problems themselves. They struggle sexually, or they have a hard time getting along with certain people, or they haven't laid aside all of their resentments. Who are they to lay heavy and impossible burdens on others, when they fail in the same areas that we do?

I like evangelical pastors who talk like we're all on a journey of spiritual growth together, who give me new ways of looking at things. Rather than saying, "Do this, or God won't bless you," the pastors I like explain why something is right, and how to do it. They may even acknowledge that they have a long way to go, while also talking about their spiritual progress. That too can be helpful.

What Annoys Me About the Blogosphere

You know, I don't totally mind being attacked in the blogosphere. What really gets my goat, though, is when people I respect blithely dismiss what I'm saying, make no attempt whatsoever to understand where I'm coming from, or act as if my good point is unworthy of their consideration.

Here's an example of an interaction I don't mind.

I said: "If anyone is interested about Moore's doctored facts, get the book Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man, by David T. Hardy and Jason Clarke. Moore makes things up, distorts facts, and splices scenes to make conservatives look bad. I think that's what happened in Jesus Camp as well--I got the impression that the scenes were heavily edited to make people look worse than they really are."

And here's my noble opponent's response: "James Pate, you really are an ignorant moronic white trash loser. Conversatives make themselves look terrible own their own. They don't need any help from Michael Moore[.]"

To be honest, these comments don't keep me awake at night. I could really care less what this person thinks! He's just blowing off steam. He can't even spell "conservatives"! If I don't respect the person making the comment, then I don't care too much if his comment trashes me.

What I can't abide, however, is when people I do respect treat me like doo-doo. Why do I respect them? Maybe because they have a high academic position, or they've demonstrated at some point that they're at least capable of rationality. Here are some statements I don't care for.

"As I already said..." Sure, you may have already said it, but am I out of line to probe your statement or ask for clarification?

"I'll respond to your rant in one point..." Well, thank you, your royal highness! Why is it that your anger is righteous indignation, whereas my anger constitutes a "rant"?

"Such a statement is not taken seriously..." It is by me!

"I don't respond to ad hominem attacks..." No, you just make them.

"You're projecting what you want onto this issue, rather than letting the sources speak for themselves..." Well, I provided quotes from the sources. Can you at least address those, rather than blithely blowing my point off?

"I would qualify such an assertion..." Why thank you, Mr. Nuance! I've had to put up with a lot of this in academia. "Well, I think it's more complex than that," a person says, before proceeding to restate my point in different words.

"You're being disingenuous..." You know, this was a setting in which I really tried my best to be diplomatic, but I felt like telling this guy off after he said that! I typed in something to tell him off, but (to my credit) I did not post it.

"Such false humility..." Excuse me! You can't read my mind!

I wish I didn't get so touchy about this stuff, especially since I'll be encountering a lot of it if I get an academic career. Whoopee! Can't wait. Maybe there are gems in those kinds of discussions, but I'm not sure what.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Felix on Rush, Part II

For background, see Felix on Rush, Part I.

This is Part II of my comments on Felix's anti-Rush Limbaugh post. Felix's quotes are in italics.

At a community “Obama bash” I went to this Saturday afternoon, a woman questioned that me as a conservative (albeit a moderate conservative that Rush hates with a passion) what draws me to President Barack Obama, I explained that President Obama transcends party politics. Those who feel that it’s cliche to say that he’s a transformational leader—tough, the proof is in the pudding! America is blessed at this time for somebody who dares to look outside the box for a change.

I can understand Felix's point here, for I had the same impression when I read Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope. Obama goes out of his way to hear and acknowledge all sorts of perspectives--right, left, and center--and those who knew him as a law professor relate that he was that way back then. I liked the parts of Obama's book that criticized government bureaucracy, especially when he said he can understand why people get frustrated when they visit their local government office and notice the bureaucrats taking their sweet time.

At the same time, I have no idea why a conservative would vote for Barack Obama. And I don't just ask this about Felix. I wonder it about Peggy Noonan, or my Republican relatives, or the red state of Indiana. In so many respects, Barack Obama is a liberal. He's trying to jump-start the economy with more government spending. He's overturned George W. Bush's pro-life policies on abortion. He's a nice guy, and he has good ideas, but he's not exactly a conservative Democrat.

This brings me to the next quote:

Frankly, the Republicans need to be co-operating with the President but at the same time not compromising their principles. As a conservative, I believe that President Obama needs to listen to the voice of fiscal responsiblity and yes, some kind of fiscal restraint when necessary. This is where the Republicans should come in make their case. Does Rush Limbaugh want the the very liberal, tax and spend wing of the Democratic party to call the shots?

I'll probably be contradicting myself in this part. Part of me wonders if bipartisanship is truly possible, when both sides have such different points of view. If Barack Obama wants to jump-start the economy through more government spending and "tax cuts" for people who don't pay taxes, and conservative Republicans find such ideas anathema, then why should they support Obama's plan?

At the same time, bipartisanship has occurred in the past, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. There's No Child Left Behind, the Prescription Drug Benefit, ethics reform, Kennedy-Kassebaum, welfare reform, etc., etc. During the Clinton health care debacle, there were Republicans who proposed alternative plans to address the rising costs of health care. And I remember watching on C-Span a remarkable example of bipartisan cooperation: Conservative Senator Tom Coburn wanted to cut stuff out of farm subsidies, and liberal Senator Tom Harkin said he shared that goal, but didn't like Coburn's way of going about it. So they agreed to meet and see what they could come up with.

I'm not sure why bipartisanship sometimes occurs, and sometimes does not. It doesn't always grow out of a spirit of cooperation, for the balanced budget and welfare reform of the 1990's emerged after a lot of clashes between Clinton and the Republican Congress. They argued and debated and fought and stalled until finally they could arrive at something that both agreed upon.

What's my point? I'm not sure. It's nice when both sides can work together to accomplish something, but it's not always feasible when the positions are too different. And good bipartisanship doesn't always require people to roll over and play dead (as Obama seems to want the Republicans to do), for diamonds can emerge out of a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Rush in his narrow ideology believes that the Republicans must seize power, take power for the sake of it.

I don't think Rush wants Republicans to gain power for the sake of power. He wants them to gain it so they can make conservative policy. Rush's problem with the Republicans is that they don't always have that same commitment to conservatism!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Felix on Rush, Part I

On his political blog, The Way I See It, Anyway, Felix wrote a post about Rush Limbaugh's "I hope he fails" statement on President Obama (see Pitying Rush Limbaugh and his idiotic assertion). I'm going to respond to pieces of Felix's post, but this isn't exactly a point/counterpoint in every area. Felix discusses why he used to like Rush, and that got me thinking about why I like him. So here we go!

Felix's statements are in italics.

I remember in 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected president, what I heard from then U.S. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole saying that, he wanted Bill Clinton “to succeed” in his presidency but somehow in 2009 we have another Republican leader (thankfully not an elected leader but one of the airwaves) who dogmatically asserts, “I hope he fails.” At least Bob Dole was (and I believe he still is) a gentleman in every sense of that word.

But what did Rush mean when he said he hopes Obama fails? I'll include a link to the context of his remark so you can decide for yourself (see here), but my impression is that Rush isn't praying that Obama will plunge America into a major depression. Rush says: "If I wanted Obama to succeed, I'd be happy the Republicans have laid down. And I would be encouraging Republicans to lay down and support him. Look, what he's talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things...We're talking about my country, the United States of America, my nieces, my nephews, your kids, your grandkids. Why in the world do we want to saddle them with more liberalism and socialism? Why would I want to do that?" Rush hopes Obama will fail to set up socialism in America.

But first, I should and need to make some serious confessions about myself in this post. My own mother a few days ago asked me a damn good question, “How is it that you were once a fan of Rush Limbaugh?” Trust me in my early 20’s I drove some people nuts of my fanship of Limbaugh (my dad was not even exempted, neither some people at the church I used to attend or people at my-then workplace at that time). Trust me, as I turn 39 today (yes the last of my thirties on my birthday)—I have grown up and have been through a lot of hard knocks. I think I am far, far wiser than the naive (but well-meaning) person as I was in my early 20’s. I also think that at time, Rush Limbaugh was filing a void. I was at that time a member of a fundamentalist sect (to be fair which was moderating in it’s hardline stances in which I am eternal grateful but that’s another topic), I was a college graduate but was unemployed for a while, scrimping at various jobs. He was articulating my dissent and anger at the excesses of the left wing which included radical feminism, radical environmentalism, the freewheeling lifestyles of Hollywood’s rich and famous and those who had little care for the traditonal family.

There's a lot there! As Felix notes, Rush was really big in the early 1990's. I listened to him because he helped me through my feelings of isolation and alienation--with his rants against elites and the establishment. But my problem in those days was that many of the elites in my small town high school actually liked Rush Limbaugh, almost to the point of never questioning him. I like Rush much more now when he's not a big-time fad. Part of me still listens to Rush because I resent not fitting in. Academia can be a liberal arena, and it's good to hear someone who can articulate my values and frustration. But I don't feel compelled to agree with Rush on everything, as I take what I like and leave the rest.

I'm not a major dittohead, but I listen to him on-and-off. I like his broadcasting voice, his conversational style, his grasp of nuance, and the way he uses little-known articles from the mainstream press to undermine liberalism. When the mainstream press boldly feeds us some half-baked narrative and expects us to accept it on the strength of them being smarter than us, he has the audacity to question it, and I applaud him for that.

I guess one pet-peeve that I have with Rush is that he expects all of us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. When a teacher called in to his program and said he had a hard time paying for health insurance, Rush told him it was his choice to become a teacher, so he should take responsibility for his own actions. I'm not going to say the teacher made a bad choice, but what I often get from Rush is, "You made your bed--now sleep in it! Get out, start a business, and go to work" (my paraphrase and interpretation). But we all make poor decisions every now and then. Not everyone has a keen business sense, and getting a high-paying job is not always easy. Should we have to suffer because of that? I once heard Rush say something like, "People complain about not having health insurance, and they want the government provide it. Have they ever thought about getting it for themselves?" Hey, I'm sure they would, if everyone had the ability to make loads of money. Not everyone does. I know I don't right now.

When I listened to Rush as a youngster, the whole world looked like it was ahead of me. I couldn't envision myself being out of work, or having a hard time paying for health insurance, food, or rent. I graduated seventh in my high school class, and summa cum laude from DePauw University! I went to Harvard! I was on my way to finding my niche, and it would be high-paying!

Now, I've learned that many with Asperger's have difficulty finding, getting, and keeping jobs. I realize that, if my family didn't help me out, I could be begging on the streets. All of a sudden, Rush's song of "Ain't got no home" doesn't sound all that funny anymore. I now see that making one's way in life is not exactly easy, and I'm not as eager to tell people to sleep in the bed they made just because they didn't make the best decisions in life.

I think Rush does well to point out why socialism doesn't work, and I don't believe he's an entirely uncaring person, since he gives a lot to charities. But the mantra of "personal responsibility" rings hollow to me these days. Sure, people should try to better themselves and contribute to society, but they shouldn't fall through the cracks because they made some poor decisions in life.

I have to take a shower and leave for church within minutes, so this will have to be Part I of II. See you then!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Two Barack Obamas

The Telegraph has an article today on Barack Obama, Rush Limbaugh, and the Republicans in Congress (see here).

There are two Barack Obamas. One I love, the other I can hardly stomach. One acknowledges different points of view, keeps his cool, has humility, and brings people together. The other is arrogant, condescending, and talks down to others.

Lately, we got to see the second Barack Obama, if what the Telegraph says is true. Remember the Barack Obama who arrogantly claimed "people don't read their Bibles," then proceeded to mangle the Bible? He seems to have made a reappearance.

He reportedly said that he doesn't care about Republican input, since he won the election. He also told Republicans that they shouldn't listen to Rush Limbaugh, for that keeps things from getting done.

President Obama has a right to act this way. His party won the election, and there's no law that says he must like the provocative voices of the other side. But he puts himself on a higher plane when he advertises himself as someone who will bring people together and usher in a new era of bipartisanship. Right now, he's acting like the liberal stereotype of George W. Bush, assuming that he doesn't need the other side, and marginalizing voices that dissent from his ideology.

I can understand that Rush Limbaugh can be pretty annoying to Democrats, since it seems like Rush monitors and critiques their every move! But that doesn't mean Republicans are wrong to listen to him. We can learn a lot from our critics!

President Obama, this is the real world now. Not everyone is enamored with your charisma. Not everyone thinks that disagreement with you is a "childish thing." When you spend taxpayer money on institutions that perform abortions, people will get offended and speak out. When your economic stimulus plan spends a bunch on contraceptives, critics will argue that perhaps the money should be spent more wisely.

Come to think of it, I think every President has two sides. George W. Bush was cranky and opinionated in the first two 2004 Presidential debates, but he was charming and witty in the last. Bill Clinton could acknowledge and in some cases implement conservative ideas, as well as acknowledge the value of Rush Limbaugh in the political process. But he also accused conservative talk radio of causing the Oklahoma City bombing.

I guess these last few weeks set the tone for how I'll react to the Obama Administration. Some days I'll love it, other days I'll hate it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Vaal, Part I

I just read a three part series in the DC Comics version of Star Trek. See here. It's numbers 43-45, dated October-December 1987. Basically, it's a continuation of the Star Trek episode "The Apple," but it also alludes to "Return to Tomorrow."

In "The Apple," Kirk arrives with a landing party to the planet Gamma Trianguli VI, which is sustained by a computerized deity named "Vaal." Akuta is the high priest of Vaal, meaning he's the only person who has communication with him. The people exist to feed Vaal, which they do by giving him explosive rocks to maintain his power supply. In return, Vaal blesses the people with food and good weather. He forbids them to procreate, and he keeps them perpetually young.

But Kirk feels that Vaal is preventing the people from progressing, so (against Spock's advice) he orders the Enterprise to destroy the deity. The people then must chart a new destiny, one that isn't as reliable as what they had before, but which will entail a lot of struggle and growth, with newfound pleasures on the side.

The comics portray what happens twenty years later. Gamma Trianguli VI is now a wasteland. Two factions are at war: One is led by Makara, who (on the episode) learned from Chekhov about love and sex. He leads the group that likes what Kirk did. He has lots of children from various wives, and he maintains power through religious threats: "Remember that bolt from the sky that destroyed Vaal? Well, it will destroy you if you don't straighten up!" (my paraphrase).

The other party is led by Akuta, who resents Kirk for destroying the planet's deity.

Spock offers to go inside of Vaal to fix him. When Spock melds with Vaal, he shares with Kirk and the landing party who and what Vaal is. Vaal was built by the people of Sargon, who escaped a war-torn planet and colonized a number of areas (including earth). We meet Sargon in "Return to Tomorrow." Sargon's people make Gamma Trianguli VI into a paradise through a Genesis sort of device, and they construct Vaal to maintain order and prevent an Armageddon. Kirk then concludes that he was wrong to destroy Vaal, the people's only source of peace and tranquility.

I'd like to share some religious thoughts about this, but I've been looking at the computer a lot today, and I want to rest my eyes. To be continued...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Roe vs. Wade Anniversary 2009

On this 36th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I could lament President Obama's latest decisions on abortion, or long for the days when we had a pro-life President in George W. Bush. Instead, I want to tell some of the story of Norma McCorvey, known to many Americans as "Jane Roe."

I watched the movie Roe vs. Wade in 1989. It was enlightening because it depicted what life was like before the decision. Norma was pregnant, and acquaintances advised her to claim she was raped; apparently, Texas law had a rape-exception in its abortion ban. This is important because many assume that pro-lifers in general want to ban all abortions--no exceptions. Actually, there appears to have been some flexibility prior to Roe vs. Wade.

(UPDATE: Actually, I found that Texas law only had an exception for the life of the mother, but acquaintances adviced Norma to claim she was raped to build a more sympathetic case.)

The movie leaned in a pro-choice direction, but it occasionally tried to present the pro-life side. There was a constitutional scholar who said to Sarah Weddington (Jane Roe's lawyer), "You know, if the founding fathers viewed abortion as a right, they would have included it in the Constitution." Weddington replied that the thought never crossed their minds, since abortion was an accepted practice for hundreds of years.

I don't know. Opposition to abortion has existed for a long time, as one can see in the Hippocratic Oath and the first century Epistle of Barnabas (19:5). Were the founding fathers pro-choice because they didn't explicitly ban abortion, or pro-life because they didn't make abortion a right? Although anti-abortion legislation first emerged in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, common law (which is based on court decisions) was against it prior to that point (see here and here). But, even if the founding fathers were pro-choice, heck, many of them owned slaves too! If we're going to have a living, breathing Constitution, shouldn't we at least consider our present ability to look inside the womb and see a real-life human being? But I'm using liberalism here to justify a conservative position!

In another scene of the movie, the lawyer defending the Texas abortion ban, Henry Wade, was talking to a friend about the life of the fetus. "Do you know that in the sixth week of a woman's pregnancy, the child can suck his thumb? We've got to win this!"

One scene that stays in my mind is Norma giving birth. Her plan was to have the child and give her up for adoption. Right after the baby came out, the doctors took her away so they could give her to an adoption agency. "Can't I at least hold her?," Norva asked. The movie was trying to ridicule the "adoption, not abortion" rhetoric, but what went through my mind was, "Hey, she wanted to kill her child earlier in the movie, and now she wants to hold her?"

So the movie made its plug for Roe vs. Wade, and it wasn't an accident that it came out in 1989. That was the year when the Supreme Court was deciding whether or not to overturn Roe, in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. The decision upheld certain abortion restrictions, but it stopped short of overturning Roe. One political cartoon portrayed Rehnquist saying, "We've decided not to abort Roe vs. Wade; rather, we will put it up for adoption."

But the movie was incomplete, for Norma McCorvey's story was not yet finished. The year was 1995. I was watching two shows one night: Michael Moore's TV Nation, and Pat Robertson's 700 Club. On TV Nation, Michael Moore was portraying pro-lifers as hateful fanatics. Moore and his cronies were outside of an Operation Rescue leader's home, and the leader said, "Darn, I was about to shoot you!" We were left with a negative impression of the pro-life movement.

But the 700 Club presented another side. Norma McCorvey had just accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Savior, and she was renouncing her role in legalizing abortion. A big reason she did so was the love that Operation Rescue people had shown to her.

Throughout her life, Norma McCorvey was somewhat of a pawn for both sides. She often felt that Sarah Weddington (her lawyer in Roe) used her but did not really care for her. And I recall the Operation Rescue minister who led her to Christ telling Pat Robertson that Norma was a "baby Christian," and he later showed a picture of him baptizing Norma McCorvey on the cover of his autobiography. (My impression is she was used as a pawn, but Weddington and the Operation Rescue leader probably have different explanations.)

But Norma McCorvey was a maverick in her own right. A few years after her baptism, she left evangelicalism and converted to Roman Catholicism (see here). And, in 2008, she endorsed Republican candidate Ron Paul for President, since he promised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the case that bears her pseudonym.

There are many touching aspects of her story, but I'll save them for another year. Unfortunately, Roe vs. Wade will probably be with us for a while, unless God gives President Obama the grace to change his views on abortion. In the meantime, here's the wikipedia article on Norma McCorvey.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Will Obama Cut It?

The AP has an article today: Analysis: Seven reasons for skepticism about Obama's tasks.

I agree and disagree with it. Here's what I agree with:

1. Having smart people in government doesn't necessarily mean we get good decisions. That resonates with my hostility towards academic elitism!

2. Just because something's bipartisan, that doesn't make it right. This is important to me because there's a lot of herd mentality going on right now. "You shouldn't criticize Obama!," people imply. "You need to be a good citizen and get behind your President." One problem I have with this, of course, is that many of the same liberals who feed us this line weren't so charitable to George W. Bush when he was President. But I can poke holes at the other side's inconsistencies all day, as the other side can attack the G.O.P.'s inconsistencies. The more serious issue I have with the current herd mentality is that it silences criticism, which is necessary to keep Obama from making poor decisions.

Here's where I disagree with the article:

1. I think it underestimates the power of charisma and rhetoric when it claims Obama relies too much on his speech-making ability. Reagan used both to his advantage when he was President. Sure, he made tough decisions and gained allies in the Congress, but he also appealed directly to the American people. When Reagan asked Americans to write their Senators and representatives, they did, and Reagan got things done as a result. Similarly, Obama should use his ability to connect with the American people.

2. I agree that we shouldn't be bipartisan just for the sake of being bipartisan, and I think that criticism is necessary for good government to exist. At the same time, it would be nice if our leaders worked with each other rather than trying to score political points by attacking the other side. There needs to be some flexibility in both camps.

I think back to the health care debate in the 1990's. Various people were offering alternatives to Hillary's plan, but Hillary rejected them because they did not cover everyone. Some covered as many as 90%, but Hillary would not budge. Then there was Phil Gramm. While others were proposing compromises, Gramm boldly proclaimed that Hillary's plan would pass over his cold, dead political body. He didn't propose anything to help solve the problem. He just opposed Hillary's plan. And he's cited that as an example of his commitment to principle.

The result? Nothing got passed! And we continue to pay high premiums and health care costs as a result!

What I like about Obama is that he's willing to listen to all sorts of perspectives: left, right, and center. I'm still concerned about group-think in this country because it can stifle opposing voices, but Obama has shown a willingness to be the President of all people.

At the same time, the article makes a good point: Obama is going to have to make decisions. He can't listen to different ideas all day. At some point, he will have to act. I'm hoping he has the ability to do this, but I'm not too sure right now. He was inactive during the economic crisis ("If you need me, call me"). He's changed his mind on so many things. I don't think he should be rash, as Bush sometimes was in his decision-making. He's just going to have to find a balance between listening to different perspectives and being decisive.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day 2009

I didn't get to watch President Obama's inaugural address while it was going on, but I got to see Bush leaving in his helicopter while I was eating a sub at Jersey Mike's. One of the workers waved to the television set and said "bye, bye," and another remarked, "Good riddance." But the thought that went through my mind was, "You'll always be my President."

I was a little sad to see Bush go. At the same time, I didn't feel as sad as I did when Reagan left office. I think the reason is that Reagan could make a connection with me, even when I was a child and relatively apolitical. Although I always liked Bush's humor, charm, humility, and friendliness to all he met, he didn't really make that deep of a connection with me as a viewer, probably because he didn't speak to the American people all that often, and, when he did, he came across as rather rehearsed.

I stopped by the library to pick up some books, then I returned home and found that I had a package waiting for me in the rental office. I went there and said "Hi" to the workers. "Obama's now President," one of them cheerfully remarked. "Yippee," I sarcastically retorted. Interestingly, the other worker there, an African-American with dreadlocks, had pretty much the same reaction that I did. That should teach me not to stereotype!

I entered my apartment and turned on the TV to see if the inauguration was replaying on any channel. It was--on C-Span 3, which was showing a Canadian station's coverage.

I can't say I was moved that much. Rick Warren's prayer was all right, though it was a little long-winded. He tried to bring Jesus into it without being offensive. He affirmed that Jesus changed his life, right before he said the name of Jesus in multiple languages.

The swearing in ceremonies were all right. I liked it when Biden said "Thank you, Mr. Justice" after John Paul Stevens had sworn him in, since that was a gesture of friendliness. The highlight, of course, was John Roberts' swearing in of Barack Obama. It was a little awkward, and I was reminded of that Saturday Night Live skit in which Dan Quayle was portrayed as stumbling through the oath of office. But the news anchor said it was Roberts' fault, as have numerous news outlets. Naaah, the media's not in the tank for Obama!

As Obama gave his address, I noticed the reactions of various people in the audience. Hillary was grinning, Bill looked grim, Bush II appeared sad, and Bush I had on a really funny hat--like that Russian one George wore on Seinfeld.

As far as the speech itself went, it was all right. It was somewhat contradictory, though. Obama trashed the American desire for luxury, while saying he wanted more jobs. Um, the first kind of feeds into the second, Mr. Obama, unless you expect all of the jobs to be government-created! If I could sum up his speech, its motto would be, "Ask what your country can do for you, and ask what you can do for your country." He said that the government should do more to guarantee people a job and a good standard of living, while he also stated that we should serve others and work together to make our country a better place. He called for sacrifice in a way that echoed Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, even as he appealed to America's hopes and dreams, in John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan mode. And he made a call for national unity, right after he implicitly trashed the preceding Administration.

He vowed to help other countries, neglecting to mention that President Bush was big on foreign aid himself. He said we can fight terrorism while remaining consistent with American ideals, even though I read in Newsweek today that he has yet to explain how he'll do that. I mean, even liberal Newsweek asked what he'll do with the bad apples in Guantanamo after he closes the facility, since not everyone there is innocent!

After President Obama's solemn speech, someone read a poem, which wasn't quite as memorable as Maya Angelou's poem about the rock at Bill Clinton's 1992 inauguration. Then, a pastor gave a long benediction, in which he tried to be witty about the races: "Yellow," "white," etc. I wonder if someone would get away with that kind of stereotyping at a Republican inauguration!

There was something special about the convention: I got to see Yo-Yo Ma play the fiddle! I hadn't seen him since his appearance on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood several years before (which I saw as a rerun).

Plus, I got to see Dick Cheney in a wheelchair. I wondered if he was like FDR--making us think he could walk, when actually he was in a wheelchair the whole time. In actual fact, he hurt his back while packing to leave. I also want to mention: I only thought about Mr. Potter after the inauguration was over.

Did I get anything edifying from the festivities? I suppose I thought about the importance of loving others and working together to make this country a better place. One thing Ronald Reagan always said was that we should rely less on government and more on private initiative. Obama didn't say we should rely less on government, but he did exhort us to do our part to improve this great country. I like the way that he modelled that yesterday on Martin Luther King Day, when he said we should honor King by doing community service.

I was also reminded of the religious heritage of this country. Obama reverently bowed his head in prayer to God, and the African-Americans in his audience fervently prayed along during the invocation and benediction. I'm ashamed to say this, but I often see conservatism as "God's side," and liberalism as "the other side." And the media feeds this notion when they treat evangelicalism as a movement within the GOP. But there are godly people who are rooting for Barack Obama, and Obama seems to recognize his own reliance on almighty God.

One of the Obama girls told her father that he made a pretty good speech, and the news anchor said that this is something that will be special about the Obama Administration: it has children, who will add humor and life to a dreary national condition. I once read an interview with a McCain supporter, who remarked that he's drawn to Obama because he reminds him of John F. Kennedy, who had children in the White House. I remember that many people were similarly enamored with the Bush twins in 2000: one was smart and went to Yale, while the other was a party animal and went to the University of Texas. We like novelty as we delve into public figures' personal lives. But it's good to have children in the White House to brighten our drab condition, as long as Obama doesn't consult his daughters for advice on nuclear weaponry (Carter).

Finally, I liked what the news anchors said about the affection between the Bushes and the Obamas. President Bush has gone out of his way to make a smooth transition to the Obama Presidency, and Laura Bush gave Michelle Obama a lot of helpful advice. On a personal level, the Bushes are a class act, and there's a part of me that will miss them.

Now, onto a new day!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day 2009

Here are some items for Martin Luther King Day:

1. Patrick J. Buchanan, Right from the Beginning (New York: Regnery, 1990) 303:

"No one was unmoved [by King's 'I Have a Dream' speech]. I knew I had just heard from a few feet away one of the memorable addresses in American history. What made King's oration so powerful and affecting was that it was a passionate appeal to the best in America, delivered without rancor or malice or warning of retribution for past wrongs. King had evoked pictures of an America everyone knew and loved. His cry came in a Gospel rhetoric, in the resonating cadences that Southern and rural people, black and white, so well understood."

Elsewhere in his book, Buchanan is quite critical of Martin Luther King, Jr. But even he found things to admire in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It's certainly a profound piece of America's story. And it continues to challenge and exhort us.

2. I enjoyed this YouTube video: Martin Luther King on Malcolm X . In it, Martin Luther King is asked to respond to Malcom X's criticisms of him and his approach. King does not attack Malcom X in kind, but he goes into a logical defense of non-violence.

He sounds rather intellectual, which was essentially what he was. When I was at Harvard, Harvey Cox gave us a slideshow history of Martin Luther King. He remarked that King's sermons were very intellectual, and he showed us a slide of the church choir falling asleep behind King as he delivered the sermon. "So you guys can have hope if people are sleeping during your sermons," Cox remarked. It's amazing whom God can use to do his work, and the remarkable talents that can come out of a person at just the right time.

3. In its 10th season, 7th Heaven had an episode about Martin Luther King, called "Got MLK?" I liked it because Pete from Smallville was on it, as was Julia Duffy of Newhart fame. You never knew whom you'll encounter when watching 7th Heaven!

The plot went like this: Pete wanted to write his paper on Martin Luther King, and his teacher (Duffy) told him to pick someone else. When she hears Martin say to Pete that King wasn't that big of a deal, she requires the entire class to write about an African-American figure. Someone then gets upset and vandalizes Martin's car. Near the end of the show, Pete speaks to Eric Camden's church about why Martin Luther King matters to him.

Pete says that his grandfather was a garbage collector, who was part of the strike that King organized. The grandfather was surprised that King stuck his neck out for lowly garbage collectors!

Nowadays, there are civil rights leaders who try to make money and increase their status through their activism. But King wasn't like that. I read an article a while back that contrasted King with Jesse Jackson. Whereas Jackson likes to thrust himself into the spotlight and wonders why people don't consider him a "great man," the article argued, King entered the spotlight quite reluctantly. He saw an injustice. He didn't want his children to endure it. So he stepped forward and did something about it. And he suffered as a result, receiving death threats, spending time in jail, and ultimately giving his life.

This reminds me of the Desperate Housewives episode last night. It was the 100th episode, and it was probably the most beautiful and moving one I had ever seen. It was about a handyman, Eli Scruggs (played by Beau Bridges), who touched the lives of so many people in Wisteria Lane. He died on this episode, and the ladies think back to the ways that he helped them. He introduced Gabrielle to the neighborhood ladies, and taught her social skills after she had botched up her first impression. He saved Bree's cookbook (which later became a bestseller and made Bree rich and famous) after she threw it in the garbage. And, after Susan had another of her relationship disasters, he told Susan that she was an inspiration to him, since, after each breakup, she got back up and kept on trying.

Near the end, we see why Eli became the way he is. Mary Alice Young was the one who got him started as a handyman. He was asking for work, she noticed the holes in his shoes, and she gave his card out to her friends and neighbors. Eli was the last person to speak to Mary Alice before her suicide, and he felt terrible that he wasn't able to help her. He sat in his car for an hour, and he resolved from that point on to help people fix their lives.

At first, I thought that ruined the episode, because I didn't think that Eli manifested a "Messiah complex." He was just a nice, humble guy who helped out when he could. But helping people didn't require him to interfere in their lives or tell them what to do. Rather, it involved caring for someone else when the opportunity presented itself, rather than just coming in, fixing something in the person's house, and leaving. What was really moving was that the residents of Wisteria Lane didn't immediately remember all that Eli had done for them, since they just saw him as the local handyman. But his kindness became evident to them as they looked back.

That's the way King was, only on a larger scale. He wanted to help people and make this world a better place, and he was willing to sacrifice himself to get America closer to her ideals. He wasn't interested so much in the publicity, but rather in the dream.

On that note, happy Martin Luther King Day!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Bush Presidency

Why I Like Bush

I did not vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. I voted for Pat Buchanan instead. "How could you do that, James, in such a close election?" Well, I lived in Massachusetts at the time, and it was going for Gore, so I decided I could afford to vote my conscience. Had I lived in Ohio, where elections are closer, I would definitely have voted for Bush.

I was rather skeptical of Bush in 2000, since I expected him to be like his old man. Bush, Sr. appointed the pro-abortion (I'm sorry, "pro-choice") Louis Sullivan to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. He raised taxes, after his famous "no new taxes" pledge.

And I didn't know if Bush II would be any different, since I heard he had appointed liberal judges as Governor of Texas. But I could see from his cabinet appointments that this Republican wouldn't burn me. For Secretary of Health and Human Services, he picked Tommy Thompson, a solid pro-lifer.

As the years went by, Bush continued to impress me. He didn't just talk about cutting taxes; he actually did it. The result was economic growth, in spite of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. His judicial appointments were solidly conservative. He heartily supported abstinence-only education, and his policies were sensitive to the rights of the unborn.

I adamantly defended Bush against liberals who criticized him. And, believe it or not, it's not that hard to do.

Against liberals who claimed that Bush wanted to destroy the environment, I could point out the positive things that occurred on his watch: less air pollution, a limit on methane and harmful pesticides, tougher regulations on air polluters and mines, etc.

To those who called Republicans racist and sexist, I could point out Bush's minority appointments to high governmental and judicial positions--and they were conservative at that, showing that not all women and minorities feel that the Left speaks for them. I could also cite statistics about the closing of the educational achievement gap between whites and minorities.

And to those who believed that Bush lacked compassion for the poor, I could argue that funding for a lot of programs didn't get cut on Bush's watch. Rather, it increased.

One thing about Bush, and that is this: he is a bold visionary. He wasn't afraid to push the envelope and promote new ideas. We now have a way to measure if schools are performing, as a result of No Child Left Behind. Pollution got reduced because of his cap-n-trade policy. Bush was also a champion of faith-based initiatives and social security reform.

On a personal level, Bush came across as a nice, humble guy, like Ronald Reagan. He didn't seem to feel that he had to be President to feel good about himself. I read that George and Laura offered food to their staff, showing they were givers, not high-and-mighty elitists. I also heard Ralph Reed say something that resonated with me: Although Bush received tons of abuse from his opponents, he never responded in kind.

Do I have any reservations about the Bush Presidency? Yes. Here are a few:


1. Foreign Policy

He deserves credit for keeping the country safe after 9/11, and things seem to be going well in Iraq. But that is after 4,000 American lives have been lost, and numerous more Iraqi lives.

You know, I seriously had second thoughts about voting for Bush in 2004 after I saw Fahrenheit 9/11, since I can't imagine what a family goes through after losing a son, daughter, father, or mother to war. And was such loss even necessary? I'm not talking about Bush saying there were WMDs in Iraq, when there really were none. There's a lot of liberal mythology about the war, and I don't buy into it hook, line, and sinker. But Bush could have done the surge years ago. Instead, he went with the neo-con idea of a small, compact army, with the result that we lost lots of lives before we did the right thing.

And my problem's not just that Bush made a bad decision. It's that he didn't listen to his generals. There was such an atmosphere of intimidation in the Bush White House that people didn't always feel free to speak their minds.

Moreover, I now question an overly hawkish approach to the world. During the 1980's, Reagan set a precedent when he boldly challenged the Soviet Union. Before him, America's leaders cowered before this great bear. They trusted but did not verify. They let the Soviets continue their empire-building throughout the world, even in our own backyard. But Reagan stood up to the U.S.S.R. and did the right thing, and he didn't care if the Soviets liked him or not.

I think Bush tried to imitate that in his approach to Islamic extremism. He'll go to war, and he won't care if anyone likes him or not. Now, we've alienated so many of our allies. Bush I could rally Arab nations to fight the first Gulf War. Could Bush II do the same?

We assume that beating up on bad nations will get them to respect us and behave themselves. It doesn't necessarily! It can make them madder. Bush has a Middle East policy that lets Israel do what it wants to defend itself, regardless of how many Palestinian lives get lost in the process. But Israel beating up on Gaza hasn't made the Palestinian extremists any nicer. Rather, they're firing more rockets.

Is there a way to have a foreign policy that is tough, yet fair, which is courageous and commands respect, yet does not always resort to blowing others to kingdom come?

2. Governance

Bush had a lot of good ideas, but he couldn't get them enacted if his life depended on it! The idea of private accounts is something even Democrats have supported, but Bush couldn't get them passed. Bush says that his White House warned long ago about the dangers of Fannie and Freddie. Fair enough, but why didn't he do anything about it? Sure, this current financial crisis is due largely to Democratic policies (e.g., Community Reinvestment Act), but why didn't Bush do anything to prevent it?

Bush speaks out against earmarks, yet earmarks remain. In 2004, he promised to tackle rising health care costs--by allowing small businesses to pool their resources and purchase health insurance. Whatever happened to that idea? It would be nice if he acted rather than talk, since premiums and the cost of health care continue to rise. Bush is the President, not a radio talk-show host!

In the first few years of his Presidency, Bush was bringing Republicans and Democrats together, as he promised to do in the 2000 election. Democrats played a significant role in No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug benefit. But, somewhere along the way, Bush concluded that he didn't need the other side. When a Democrat said he'd support the Bush tax cuts with some revisions, he was told, "We're not interested in getting Democratic support. We just want that one vote that makes a majority."

I'm not saying Bush had to suck up to the Democrats, but he could've done a better job in creating goodwill.


I did not vote for Barack Obama, and there are things about him that scare me. At church this morning, the priest said that Obama supports the Freedom of Choice Act, which will force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. I hope that's not what it does!

But Obama at least seems willing to listen to different perspectives, and he's reaching out to all sorts of people. I like Bush. I'm glad he cut taxes and appointed conservatives and reached out to minorities. But I'm not going to sulk about having a new President. I'm somewhat ready for a change.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This Coming Week

I need to get my papers done this month, so I won't be writing about my comps reading this coming week. I really need to step on it! But I will still be blogging in the evenings. What are some topics for this week? Here's a list:

1. A tribute to and analysis of the Bush Presidency.

2. Comments about President Barack Obama's inaugural address.

3. A post about Ron Dart's comments on the N.T. Wright interview in Time Magazine (Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop - TIME).

4. Comments on the Israeli-Gaza conflict. This post won't satisfy most people, since I have a hard time taking sides. And I'm sickened by the tendency of some to think God is taking sides!

5. Comments about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

6. The sky's the limit. Desperate Housewives will be on Sunday (the 100th episode!), so I may comment on that. Lost's season premier will be this Wednesday. And I can also comment on my daily quiet time (Koran), my weekly quiet time (I Samuel), and my daily Bible reading (Exodus, Proverbs, and Matthew).

Stay tuned!

The Obama Transition

I haven't commented much on the Obama transition, so I'll post a comment I made on Felix's blog, under Special Open Thread Friday.

Felix said, "Another prayer for President-elect Obama is that he’d eventually take a 'moderate' pro-life position (like George Bush Sr.) and will eventually and unilaterally reject the concept of partial birth abortion in most circumstances."

I responded: "I can see him doing that, Felix--probably not going as far as Bush, Sr., but doing SOMETHING for the sanctity of life. A lot of conservatives will probably look at me and say 'What?! Look at his record! He wanted to finish off babies once they were born. He promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act!' True, but Obama also voted to rescind the Bush tax cuts on those making over $45,000 a year, and now he’s planning not to rescind them. Actually, he’s giving people a tax cut. Obama voted for a lot of earmarks, but now he’s maintaining a no-tolerance policy on earmarks. He met with conservatives--not Hannity and Rush, but others like Bill Kristol. And he kept firm in inviting Rick Warren to give an inaugural prayer. So I have some hope for him--at least that things won’t be THAT bad."

Ricardo Montalban

Ricardo Montalban has passed away. He was 88. I know him as Khan from the Wrath of Khan, and also I saw him on the third and fourth Planet of the Apes movies.

In his memory, I'm going to post some of my favorite lines from his Star Trek episode ("Space Seed"), The Wrath of Khan, and the Planet of the Apes movies he appeared in.

"Are you going to choke me or cut my throat?" Dr. McCoy said that when Khan was strangling him and holding a knife to his throat.

"Captain, have you ever heard of Milton?" Khan said this when Captain Kirk exiled him to a turbulent planet, where Khan could use his intellect to rule and bring order. Khan was referring to Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, who said it was better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. One person I know didn't follow the classics, but he knew of Milton from this episode of Star Trek.

"I have three times your strength!" Khan said this when he was fighting Kirk, or, more accurately, their bad stunt doubles were fighting. After Khan said that, my dad remarked, "Yeah, but Kirk beats Khan with this little piece of wood!"

"Khan!" "...and your name is Chekhov." This was on the Wrath of Khan, in which Chekhov and Khan recognized each other, even though Chevkov wasn't even on the "Space Seed" episode! He wasn't even part of the cast yet! People have tried to explain this in a number of ways. One explanation is that Chekhov encountered Khan in the bathroom. Another is that Chekhov escorted Khan to his new planet.

"KHAAAAN!!!" That's what Kirk said when he and Khan were battling in the Wrath of Khan.

"The answer is yes!" In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Ricardo Montalban played a circus man, who offered to take care of the new ape baby. That brings us to the next line:

"MAMA!" That's what the baby ape said at the end of the movie, even though you can't get more masculine than the muscular Ricardo Montalban. People thought his chest was artificial in Wrath of Khan, but that wasn't the case. This guy worked out, even when he got old!

"I said inhuman swine!" This was in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The ape Cornelius called the cops "human swine" when they were beating up an ape, and the authorities got suspicious. They knew the legend that a talking ape would arise and overthrow humanity, and they thought Cornelius might be it. But Montalban tried to claim to the authorities that he (not Cornelius) was the one who said that. "Then why'd you say human?," they asked. "I said inhuman," he replied.

Montalban also played on Fantasy Island, but I never saw that show. In any case, this is my way of honoring his acting career.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Handmaid, Know-It-All, Temporary Law

1. Yehoshua Amir, "Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 439.

" is possible to read into Philo's allegory the doctrine of philosophy as 'handmaid of Scripture,' in analogy to the famous formula of philosophy as 'ancilla theologiae' which was later developed by Christian theologians."

I don't know what it means to say that philosophy is a handmaid of Scripture or theology. Does it mean that philosophy can help us understand what's in the Bible, or that it confirms biblical teaching, or that the Bible coincides with it? Was it a way to assure people that the Bible was consistent with the best of Greek philosophy?

At Harvard, I attended a discussion group on the Bible and the historical-critical method. Some suggested that historical-criticism should be a handmaid for the church, meaning that the church should feel free to draw from its insights when they can assist it in its mission: to evangelize and promote righteous living among the flock. Others expressed concern about such a move, since they felt that it compromised the historical-critical method. For them, that approach allowed Christians to cherry-pick the parts of the method that helped their mission and coincided with their theology, while they could disregard the parts that they found more uncomfortable, e.g., challenges to biblical inerrancy and the notion that the entire Bible is an evangelical Christian tract.

I'm not sure what to say about this. Philo probably drew from Greek philosophy because he believed in it, but he didn't take everything from it. For example, Aristotle thought the cosmos was eternal, whereas Philo (as a Jew) believed it had an origin. Was he untrue to Aristotle? I don't know about him, but the medieval Jews who cherry-picked from Aristotle at least tried to show why they disagreed with him in certain areas. Saadiah Gaon, for instance, offered reasons that the universe had a beginning (e.g., you can't go back forever and arrive at the present, if that makes any sense). Whether the church is able to explain why it accepts parts of historical-criticism while rejecting others, I don't know. The important thing, I guess, is what Augustine said: an interpretation of Scripture is good if it encourages us to love God and neighbor.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 836-837.

"Caecilius [in the third century C.E. dialogue, Octavius] speaks first (chs. 5-15), in defence of the heathen, and in opposition to the Christian religion...He charges the Christians with presumption for claiming a certain knowledge of the highest problems which lie beyond human ken...He concludes with the re-assertion of human ignorance of things which are above us, and an exhortation to leave those uncertain things alone..."

Christians often do claim to know the mysteries of the universe. My problem is that there are all of these questions out there, and Christians offer their answers, and I'm usually left scratching my head, thinking, "Is that all there is to it?" Is all of life encapsulated in the truths that God made us, we sinned, Christ redeemed us, we're supposed to do good, and Christ will return? Is there nothing else to know?

There have been times when Christianity has appeared rather deep, however. When I was in a Bible study group at DePauw, we were studying I-II Peter, and we could practically derive a sermon out of each verse. It was so deep and multi-layered! The leader of the group said, "It's like God said, 'I'm going to put this in language that the people can understand,' then he does so, and the product is still overwhelming and beyond us!"

At least the Christians tried to understand the deep things. Caecilius, however, did not. He wanted the pagans to offer their sacrifices and be good citizens. His perspective was roughly the same as what we see in Deuteronomy 29:29, only he was a pagan: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law" (NRSV). Perhaps Christians believed, however, that knowing certain mysteries could actually enable them to live good lives.

3. "The Law," A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 155, 157-159.

"God says, 'In this world, in the chapter of the red heifer, you are made clean and are purified by the mouth of the priest' (Num. XIX, 7-9). But in the world to come it shall not be so. Then God himself will purify you from all your sins and impurities...(Ezek. XXXVI, 25). (Pes. R. 66a.)"

"It is written, 'For this commandment is not in heaven' (Deut. XXX, 11, 12). Moses said to the Israelites, 'Lest you should say, Another Moses is to arise, and to bring us another Law from heaven, therefore I make it known to you now that it is not in heaven: nothing is left of it in heaven'...(Deut. R., Nizzabim, VIII, 6.)"

Many Christians believe that Jesus came with a new law, or he changed the old one. Consequently, we don't have to do what the Israelites of the Old Testament did (e.g., Sabbath, sacrifices, avoid pork, etc.). Many Jews, however, have countered that the Torah is eternal and perpetual, meaning God intended for them always to do those rituals. But there is one Jewish view that things will be different in the World to Come, meaning that Israelites will not always obey every law of the Torah. Could such a belief form the backdrop to what we see in Hebrews? Hebrews asserts that Christians don't need to offer animal sacrifices now that Christ had come, and, in some sense, its author holds that the world to come has broken into the world through Jesus (see Hebrews 6:5). Maybe that's why he sees the Law as flexible.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inspiration, Toleration, Meditation

1. Yehoshua Amir, "Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in the Writings of Philo," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 435.

"Here, apparently following the practice of the Delphic oracle of his time, [Philo] makes a sharp distinction between the soothsayer who, in the grip of the god, can only utter incomprehensible sounds, and the insightful prophet, who, using his reason to the fullest, 'critically judges' these sounds and extracts a reasonable meaning from them."

Philo's view of inspiration seems to be that God gives the prophet something, and the prophet does something with what God has given him when he communicates it to others. It reminds me of the view that God put the thoughts in the biblical authors minds, and they expressed those thoughts in their own words. "The Bible is thought inspired, not word inspired," a Seventh-Day Adventist I knew once said in his church's Sabbath School class. And he was expressing SDA doctrine, not just his own opinion! Such a view would explain why there is diversity of language throughout the Bible.

Some have problems with this idea. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a theology class taught by Neil Gillman, and he was discussing the various ideas about divine revelation. For him, anything other than divine dictation made the Bible a solely human product. After all, if God gives the prophet an idea, and the prophet expresses it in his own words, then the prophet is adding his interpretation to the message as he writes or speaks it. Once you add that sort of subjectivity to the prophetic process, you don't really know what's from God! All you hear is God's message as it is filtered through the prophet's personal interpretation, which goes into the words and phrases that he chooses.

I guess this is the question about divine inspiration: Where does the divine begin, and where does the human element enter the picture? And people approach this subject in different ways. At DePauw, theologians told me that we read the Bible to see a pattern of what God is like. I guess what they mean is that we have to look at all of the portrayals of God and see what they have in common. Paul Hanson of Harvard does something like this in A People Called, and the message he sees in the Bible's diverse writings is God's commitment to social justice. For Hanson (as I understood him), the parts of the Bible that are "conservative" reflect their ancient Near Eastern context, whereas the liberating aspects are divinely-inspired. Jon Levenson calls this idea sola liberatia.

In the Bible itself, God speaks to human beings, and they write down or speak what God said to them. It's dictation. How that jibes with the diversity in the Bible, I do not know.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 829.

"...Tertullian [(second-third centuries C.E.)] enthusiastically and triumphantly repels the attacks of the heathens upon the new religion, and demands for it legal toleration and equal rights with other sects of the Roman empire. It is the first plea for religious liberty, as an inalienable right which God has given to every man, and which the civil government in its own interest should not only tolerate but respect and protect."

When I was at DePauw, I took a class called "Foundations of Western Civilization," which covered the Reformation. In one of our books, I read about a few thinkers around the time of the Reformation who believed in religious toleration. They were sick of all the religious wars, and they concluded that life would be better if people could practice their religion freely. As far as my history book was concerned, that idea was pretty revolutionary for that period! Luther and Calvin didn't hold it.

In a Christianity class I took at DePauw, we were studying the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. "They had to get this question figured out, since Constantine had become a Christian, and he wanted to know which viewpoint he should enforce," my professor said. I guess that's how it was in those days! People weren't allowed to believe whatever they wanted about God. Faith was enforced by the state. Christians like to talk about the people who gave their lives for their belief in Christ's divinity, but I wouldn't be surprised if Arians also died at the hands of the state.

In light of all this, I'm surprised to encounter a third century figure who believed in religious toleration. Of course, he held this view when Christianity was a minority, persecuted religion, so maybe his commitment to it isn't that surprising after all!

Some like to talk about how tolerant pagan societies were. "Polytheism is tolerant, while monotheism is intolerant," I once heard a professor say. Granted, monotheism can be pretty intolerant, but it was polytheism that threw Christians to the lions. It reminds me of political correctness today: it upholds tolerance and diversity, except for those outside of a particular norm.

I was watching the Message today, a 1976 movie about the early history of Islam. There's a scene in which the pagan leader of Mecca is talking to Muhammad and his crew, and someone asks him (the Meccan leader) if he believes in the one true God and Muhammad, God's prophet. The African Muslim, Bilal, then says that we cannot force people to believe in God, since faith must come in God's own time. The Meccan then confesses his belief in Allah and Muhammad.

I'm not sure if this accords with the Koran. The Koran is like Christianity in that it says one must either believe a certain way or spend eternity in hell. That's even communicated in the Message, in a battle scene. The Muslim army shouts to the Meccans, "Our dead soldiers are in paradise. Your dead soldiers are in hell!" So much for God's own time! If one doesn't believe a certain way before death, then one goes to hell. It's not as if a person has oodles of time, in that scenario, since people don't know when they will die. As evangelicals like to say, "If you were to get hit by a car tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?"

One thing I somewhat like about Islam, though, is its focus on good works. I have a hard time choosing what to believe, but I can choose what I do. I can decide to act concretely in light of the notion that there is a God who cares about what I do and will judge me in the last day. On the other hand, in those days, belief mattered! If the Meccans were going to dump idolatry and all of the business that Mecca received from it, then they had better have some conviction that they were doing the right thing! They couldn't have a "Well, there may be one God" mindset, since lots of money was at stake.

A final point for this category: When I was at DePauw, a professor told me about a priest in the 1960's who said that Jesus didn't force people to accept his religion. I think this was part of Vatican II, which embraced religious liberty and toleration. Was the priest correct? Yes, in a sense. I mean, Jesus didn't have the political authority to force anyone to believe anything. He had to persuade people--through arguments, miracles, etc. At the same time, he did believe that the cosmic ruler of the universe punished those who didn't embrace Jesus and his message, so he didn't exactly think that God ran the world with a cosmic First Amendment.

3. "The Law," A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 125.

"So God says to the Israelites, 'I created within you the evil yetzer, but I created the Law as a medicine. As long as you occupy yourselves with the Law, the yetzer will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, then you will be delivered into the power of the yetzer, and all its activity will be against you.' (Sifre Deut., 'Ekeb, 45, f. 82b (R.T. p. 182; Hd. p. 103).)"

What is it about the Jewish law that undermines a person's evil inclination? I have a hard time believing that laws about rituals and damages and slavery and divorce can make a person less evil--unless they relate to God's holiness, or justice, or kind treatment of slaves and the wife who is put away. But I'm not sure if Jewish literature focuses as much on the latter. The Mishnah and (as far as I can see) the Talmud concentrate instead on how to keep the Law, not so much the Law's meaning (though maybe the midrash touches on some of this). At the same time, there is a strong moral component of the Law, which the rabbis do acknowledge. Don't kill, don't commit adultery, don't steal, etc. These restrain human beings from harming others.

Did You Know...

...that the guy who plays Charlie Pace on Lost played Merry in Lord of the Wings? And that the guy who plays Charles Widmore on Lost played the boss's dad on Ugly Betty?

Ah, the joys of wikipedia...

Personally, I can't picture Merry singing "You are everybody." Maybe that's why I didn't make the connection!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Psalm 2, Eclipse on a Full Moon, Die to Observe

1. Devorah Dimant, "Use and Interpretation of the Mikra in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha," Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 411.

"Thus the text of wisdom alludes to Ps 2, integrating it and commenting upon it. Ps 2 is selected apparently because it urges kings and judges to exercise wisdom."

Dimant is saying that Wisdom 1:1 and 6:1 allude to the LXX of Psalm 2:10. Let's look at the verses:

Wisdom 1:1: "Love righteousness, you [judges] of the earth, think of the Lord in goodness and seek him with sincerity of heart" (NRSV).

Wisdom 6:1: "Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth."

Psalm 2:10: Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth (Brenton's English translation of the LXX).

"Kings." "Judges." "Understand." Yes, there's commonality between the wisdom passages and the LXX of Psalm 2:10, which is more evident in the Greek.

I never really viewed Psalm 2:10 as Wisdom seems to interpret it. Wisdom of Solomon's point is that the kings and judges of the earth should learn wisdom and practice righteousness so as to avoid God's judgment. I always assumed that Psalm 2 was saying to the kings: "Straighten up! Stop conspiring against my son, the Davidic monarch, or he and I will stomp you out of existence." But I can understand why Wisdom of Solomon views the Psalm in a more general sense, for Psalm 2:11 tells the kings to serve the LORD with fear. They're not merely to leave the Davidic monarch alone; rather, they must serve the LORD.

My reading of Psalm 2 has been Messianic, since it appears to relate to the Messiah gaining dominion over all of the nations, notwithstanding their resistance. Revelation 19:19-21 gives the scenario that formed the backdrop for my interpretation: "Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh." Kings challenge the Messiah Jesus Christ, and they receive God's wrath as a result. That looks like the message of Psalm 2!

Elsewhere in the New Testament, however, there's a belief that Psalm 2 was being fulfilled in the first century, meaning they didn't think it applied only to the second coming of Jesus Christ. In Acts 4:24-27, the apostles interpret the conspiring of the nations against God's anointed in light of the execution of Jesus by Herod and Pontius Pilate. Hebrews 5:5 applies Psalm 2 to God's anointing of Jesus Christ, which had already occurred.

The New Testament most likely doesn't see the contents of Psalm 2 as a single event (the second coming of Jesus Christ), but rather as something that spreads over many years of history. Christ has inaugurated the end times! And the early Christians warned the rulers of the earth that they should submit to God's Messiah today, since he will one return to set up his dominion.

But Wisdom of Solomon also sees Psalm 2 as a present sort of thing: the kings of the earth are to rule right now in wisdom and righteousness. It doesn't apply Psalm 2 to the single end-time arrival of the Messiah, but it does mention the prospect of a coming judgment for rulers who disobey wisdom. As far as I can see, the "son" vanishes from Wisdom of Solomon's interpretation of Psalm 2, maybe because there was no Davidic monarch at the time (although Solomon seems to be portrayed as the author of the book). In the eyes of the Wisdom of Solomon, there was no "son of God" at the time for the kings of the earth to challenge.

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 804-805.

Julius Africanus (third century C.E.) "treats the darkness at the crucifixion as miraculous, since an eclipse of the sun would not have taken place at the full moon."

I'll be parading my ignorance in this section! I've read elsewhere that the eclipse of the sun at Jesus' crucifixion is problematic because a full moon was occurring at the same time. That may have something to do with the time when Jesus died, the Passover. Passover usually occurs at or near a full moon. See Apr 20, the date for Passover in 2008. The moon is full!

I don't understand astronomy, but a full moon is not consistent with the moon being between the sun and the earth (a solar eclipse). Somehow, Julius Africanus was sensitive to that way back in the third century C.E. I wonder how.

I'm curious about what exactly Julius thought God did to carry out the miracle. Did God move the moon and place it in front of the sun? Was the darkness an optical illusion, or in people's heads? Did clouds cause it? I don't know.

Many liberal scholars say that the synoptic Gospels have darkness at Jesus' crucifixion because they're trying to evoke the day of the LORD, a time of thick darkness (Zephaniah 1:15). For them, the darkness is something literary or religious that the author put into the plot. It's not historical, as far as they're concerned.

Why darkness? It may convey God's disapproval of Jesus' enemies, or the evil that appeared to triumph when Jesus was on the cross, or Jesus' endurance in our place of God's righteous wrath, which the day of the LORD is all about (God's wrath, that is). John, however, does not mention darkness at Jesus' crucifixion. Some scholars believe this is because John saw Jesus' death as a time of spiritual light. For John, Jesus was the light of the world particularly when he was finishing the work God had given him to do--at his crucifixion.

Maybe there's an explanation for the darkness during the full moon. Or maybe the darkness conveys a literary or theological point. Maybe it's both! I don't know.

3. "The Law," A Rabbinic Anthology, ed. C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938) 116-117.

"It is written, 'Keep my statutes: through them shall a man live' (Lev. XVIII, 5). R. Ishmael said: How can one know that [in a time of persecution] they say to an Israelite in private, 'Serve the idol, and you will not be killed,' he should serve the idol, and not be killed? Because it says, 'A man shall live through them,' and it does not say, 'A man shall die through them.' But if he is told in public, is he to obey? No, for it says, 'Ye shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel' (Lev. XXII, 32)...(Sifra 86b.)"

When I was in seventh grade, I had a Jewish social studies teacher, and our class spent a week on religion. He told us that Judaism views life as sacred. That's why Jewish doctors are permitted to save life on the Sabbath. And, if a Jew is on the verge of starving to death, Jewish law allows him to eat pork. "It would even let him put salt on it, because human life is sacred," my teacher said.

I thought that contradicted what I read in the Gospels, namely, the scenes in which the Jewish leaders don't like Jesus healing on the Sabbath. But they're not exactly contradictory. The people Jesus healed were not on the verge of death when Jesus performed the miracle. They could have come back on another day, as the leader of the synagogue said (Luke 13:14).

What about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath? When Brad Young spoke at Hebrew Union College, he said that Jesus was upholding a halakhic point of view. According to the passage he handed out to us, a Jew is permitted to break the Sabbath if he has an ox's hunger, which could place him on the verge of starving to death.

So why did the Pharisees dislike Jesus' disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath? Did they think the disciples didn't have an ox's hunger? If so, they may have had a point. Mark 2 seems to put the incident in Capernaum, which was where Peter lived. Surely they could have eaten at Peter's house after synagogue services, right? It wasn't that far of a journey! They wouldn't starve to death on the way. Was the plucking of grain absolutely necessary for their survival? I don't know. Jesus refers to the example of David, who ate the bread of the priests when on the verge of starvation. So maybe there's some truth in what Brad Young said.

The rabbinic passage I have in quotes addresses a question I have had: When can Jews break the law to save their lives, and when can they not? My social studies teacher said a Jew could eat pork if on the verge of starvation. But II Maccabees 7 tells of story of seven brothers who chose to be martyrs rather than eating the king's pork. Couldn't they have eaten it to save their skins?

No, for the situations were different. In one case, the Jew ate pork in an emergency situation--so he could survive to live a life of obedience to God's commandments. In the other case, the very validity of God's law is challenged. Will the Jews obey God as their ruler, or will they exalt Antiochus as supreme? In their minds, the supremacy of God is something worth dying for.

I wonder if the same principle applies to the Sabbath. In I Maccabees 2, we read of Jews who chose to die at the hands of their enemies rather than fight on the Sabbath. Mattathias then decreed that Jews could fight on the Sabbath. That was a matter of saving their lives so they could continue to live in obedience to God's commands.

But, during the Holocaust, Jews worked on the Sabbath when their Nazi persecutors demanded it. In Schindler's List, it was almost a privilege when Oscar Schindler permitted the Jews to rest on the Sabbath! Shouldn't they have died for their commitment to God's Sabbath, as the seven brothers gave their lives when Antiochus told them, "Eat pork or die?" I'm not sure how an orthodox Jew in a concentration camp would answer that. Maybe he'd express hope that the Jews would see better days and be able to resume their observant Jewish lives.

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