Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

John M. Barry.  Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.  Viking, 2012.

This book is about Roger Williams, who started Providence, Rhode Island as a place of religious freedom.  He had been expelled by the Puritans in Massachusetts on account of his belief in religious freedom, and also because he believed that the European immigrants to America were wrong to take land from the Native Americans as opposed to buying it from them.  Here are some points that I want to make about Barry’s book:

—-Barry’s book provided me with context about who the Puritans were and why they came to America.  I have already read a couple of books about the Puritans, but there was some lacunae in my knowledge.  This book helped to fill that.  Essentially, there were power struggles in seventeenth century England between the monarchy and the Parliament.  The monarch (namely, James I then Charles I) was rather open to Catholicism, whereas the Parliament contained a lot of Calvinistic Protestants who were against that.  There were seasons in which the monarchy had the upper hand, and the king’s powerful sympathizers persecuted the Calvinistic Puritans.  The English Puritans still had some clout, however, so a group of them managed to set up a company in America that England recognized.

—-Have you ever wondered about how the different groups in America got along?  How, for example, did the Pilgrims in Plymouth get along with the Puritans in Massachusetts?  Essentially, they did not like each other, for the Pilgrims were separatists who wanted separation from the Church of England, whereas the Puritans desired to purify the Church of England of such things as Catholic rituals, the Book of Common Prayer, and Arminianism.  The Pilgrims in Plymouth still depended on the Puritans, on some level, and that was one reason that they were hesitant to allow Roger Williams to live in their midst after the Puritans had booted him out.  My impression is that the Pilgrims depended on the Puritans because the Pilgrims were essentially on their own, whereas England recognized the Puritan community, and thus the Puritan community had access to English resources and protection.  Those things were important.  Roger Williams would find that out when Massachusetts was trying to take over his area of Providence, and so he went to England for recognition and protection, and, due to his connections, he managed to get it.

—-How did Roger Williams, a Puritan, come to believe in religious liberty?  Barry speculates that it could have been due to the influence of Williams’ mentor in England, Edward Coke, an influential figure who opposed the king becoming too powerful.  There were also pro-liberty trends in English history, such as the slogan that a man’s home is his castle, and a comment Elizabeth I made about the importance of the soul being free from compulsion.  Roger Williams would debate religious liberty with Puritan John Cotton.  Cotton notes times in the Bible in which God opposed religious liberty, since God mandated the death penalty for idolaters.  Williams retorted, however, that this was the Old Testament, and that, under the New Testament, the wheat and the tares are to grow together until Christ returns, and the tares are not to be uprooted.  Williams also pointed to the bloodshed that occurred as a result of religions not tolerating one another.

—-An issue that came up in Williams’ debate with Cotton was whether England (and the Puritan colony in America) was in some sort of national covenant with God, of the sort that ancient Israel had in the Bible.  English Calvinistic Protestants tended to believe that England had that kind of relationship with God, that England was God’s chosen people (which is not to say that they believed that England was one of the lost ten tribes, contra certain British Israelists).  Williams, however, seemed to dispute that, and he expressed doubt that English Protestantism was truly blessed by God.  Why, after all, were the Catholics and Muslims so successful on the world stage, he wondered, if they are the people God rejects, and if God blesses the faithful and curses the unfaithful?  Williams may have arrived at this position over time, for, when he was trying to encourage a group of Native Americans to make peace with the English (Williams was often a mediator between the English in America and the Native Americans, on account of his friendship with Native Americans), he noted to them that the English had God on their side, and thus it would be prudent for the Native Americans to have them as allies rather than opposing them.

—-Barry states more than once that Williams could have made a good home for himself in England, for, even though he was controversial (his books were burned), he was liked and influential, and he was friends with the influential (such as Oliver Cromwell).  But Williams chose to return to Providence, America, the site of his experiment with religious liberty, as rough and uncomfortable as that could be.

—-Williams got to the point where he did not attend church.  He concluded that the apostolic line of succession no longer applied, since it had been corrupted over the years by Catholicism and (well) just plain corruption.  That led him to believe that God did not recognize any churches, that no church could be established that would reflect a continuity with the church that Jesus started.  I wonder why a corrupt line of succession would have to entail not going to church.  Couldn’t believers just get together to exhort and encourage each other, even if the apostolic line of succession became historically tainted?

—-There were other things in the book that stood out to me.  There was the English Puritans’ brewery, which was public, and which employed the poor.  Money was given to almshouses.  That is quite an economic model!  I also liked what Barry had to say about John Cotton: how he passionately preached grace and intimacy with God, in such a manner that attracted many to hear him, and even to follow him to America.  Cotton was probably a refreshing preacher in light of the Puritan emphasis on self-examination and the agonizing struggle to determine if one was part of God’s elect.  Still, Cotton could be a jerk.  When Roger Williams got sick, for instance, Cotton saw that as God’s punishment of Williams for Williams’ views.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Jesus Loves Even Me"

At church this morning, we sang the hymn “Jesus Loves Even Me.”  I especially liked the following stanza:

“Though I forget Him, and wander away,
“Still He doth love me wherever I stray;
“Back to His dear loving arms I do flee,
“When I remember that Jesus loves me.”

A number of Christians may criticize that hymn for being too individualistic.  I happen to like it, though.  I think it’s important to remember that God loves each and every one of us.  That doesn’t preclude the importance of helping other people, though.

Click here to learn about the history of the hymn and to listen to it being sung.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

I Chronicles 16

I have two items for my post about I Chronicles 16.

1.  Although the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were often together in the Pentateuch—-with the Ark being inside of the Tabernacle, except when it was brought out (usually for battle)—-they were separate from each other during David’s reign.  Or so says I Chronicles.  David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and pitched a tent for it, and there it remained while he was king.  The Tabernacle, however, was located in Gibeon, which John MacArthur says was six miles to the northwest of Jerusalem.  According to I Chronicles 16, there were thanksgiving, music, and Levitical priests at both sites.  Sacrifices, however, occurred at the Tabernacle.

Could sacrifices be offered outside of the Tabernacle?  Well, II Samuel 6:13 seems to say so, for, there, when the Ark was being transported from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem under King David, the people transporting the Ark walked six paces and offered sacrifices.  They had recently seen God strike Uzzah dead for touching the Ark, and they wanted to stay on God’s good side, so they offered sacrifices throughout their journey to Jerusalem.  The Chronicler, however, may tell the story differently, for I Chronicles 15:26 states: “And it came to pass, when God helped the Levites that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, that they offered seven bullocks and seven rams” (KJV).  Keil-Delitzsch interpret this passage to mean that the Levites offered their sacrifices after their transportation of the Ark had been successful.  Whereas II Samuel 6 depicts people offering sacrifices to God during the journey of transporting the Ark from Obed-Edom’s house to Jerusalem, I Chronicles 15 seems to depict Levites transporting the Ark, and then, once that is done, offering sacrifices to God.  Did the Chronicler have problems with the idea that sacrifices could be offered outside of a sanctuary?

Where exactly did the Levites offer those sacrifices, according to the Chronicler?  At the Tabernacle in Gibeon?  It doesn’t say.  I Chronicles 16:1-2 state: “So they brought the ark of God, and set it in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it: and they offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings before God.  And when David had made an end of offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD” (KJV).  Are these sacrifices being offered in Jerusalem, which is where the Ark is, or are David and the Israelites in Jerusalem, while the sacrifices are being offered in Gibeon, at the Tabernacle?  It makes more sense to me to go with the former—-the sacrifices were being offered at Jerusalem, where the ceremony was taking place.  So did the Chronicler think that sacrifices could be offered outside of Gibeon, after all?  Maybe.  The sacrifices in Jerusalem were occurring close to the Ark, which was holy, so perhaps that made them acceptable, in the Chronicler’s sight.  Why, then, would the Chronicler have problems with offering sacrifices during the Ark’s transportation from Obed-Edom’s house to Jerusalem?  The sacrifices would have been near the Ark, in that case.  I don’t know.  I Chronicles 16 (see v 40) seems to be specifying that sacrifices occurred at Gibeon.  Perhaps the Chronicler was open to sacrifices occurring elsewhere, on special occasions—-like in Jerusalem, after the Ark had arrived and been settled.  But he may have thought that offering sacrifices on a journey went a bit too far.

Why did David settle the Ark in Jerusalem rather than where the Tabernacle was located?  Maybe he just wanted to be near the Ark.  He desired God’s blessing, and he wanted God to be especially close to him.

Someone else who may have wanted to stay near the Ark was Obed-Edom, for I Chronicles 16 states that Obed-Edom and his brothers would serve at the Ark after it had been transported to Jerusalem.  That’s pretty cool, if that is the same Obed-Edom at whose house the Ark was after Uzzah was killed (and there is debate about this, and also about how many Obed-Edoms there are in Chronicles).  Obed-Edom’s house experienced the blessings of the Ark, so Obed-Edom decided to follow the Ark into Jerusalem and make a career as a doorkeeper there.  Imagine that!  Of course, there is the question of whether Obed-Edom was even qualified to be near the Ark, since only Levites were allowed near it, according to the Pentateuch.  Obed-Edom was a Gittite, which could be the Philistine ethnic group of which Goliath was part, according to II Samuel 21:19 and I Chronicles 20:5.  But the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary states (on I Chronicles 13:13): “Since Oved-Edom is mentioned among the Levites at 15:18, Mefaresh thinks that he is called a Gittite because he used to live in Gath—-not because he was a Philistine…”  I Chronicles 15:18 does not explicitly say that Obed-Edom was a Levite, but that may be a good inference.  Perhaps Obed-Edom, after experiencing the blessings of the Ark at his house, decided to get in touch with his Levitical roots and minister to the Ark once it came to Jerusalem!

2.  According to I Chronicles 16, when the Ark was brought to Jerusalem, David delivered a psalm into the hands of Asaph and his brothers.  V 35 of that Psalm states: “And say ye, Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather us together, and deliver us from the heathen, that we may give thanks to thy holy name, and glory in thy praise” (KJV).  That is pretty odd.  Why would David ask God to return Israelite exiles to Israel, when the exile had not happened yet?  Northern Israel had not yet fallen to Assyria (which happened in 722 B.C.E.), nor had Judah fallen to Babylon (which occurred in 587 B.C.E.).  Is David being prophetic here?  Is this an anachronism on the Chronicler’s part?

Keil-Delitzsch suggest that v 35 may refer to Israelite prisoners-of-war, taken captive by Israel’s enemies during Israel’s battles with them.  Saul and David both battled foreign enemies.  Those foreign enemies probably took Israelite captives.  Perhaps David is asking God to return those captives to Israel.

Friday, June 27, 2014

David Muir Replacing Diane Sawyer

David Muir will be replacing Diane Sawyer as the nightly anchor of ABC News, which is what I watch.  That’s not too big of an adjustment for me as a viewer, since he’s substituted for Diane so many times, and thus I am used to him.  ABC News will still be my news home!  And, believe me, it took me a while to find a news home!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: Blown by the Spirit, by David R. Como

David R. Como.  Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil War England.  Stanford University Press, 2004.

I came across this book while I was doing a search on a library’s catalog.  I had just read one of David Hall’s books about Puritanism (see my post about that here), and I wanted to read more about Puritanism in England.  I did a search, and I found Como’s book, which is about the conflict between the Antinomians and the Puritans in seventeenth century England.  But Como’s book stood out to me for an additional reason: it talked about antinomianism.  The antinomians interest me because they challenged what they believed was the legalism of the Puritans.  The issue of grace and works is on my mind a lot, for I hunger for a God who accepts me, even though I fall short of perfection.

Well, I was in for some surprises when I read Como’s book!  I had my stereotypes about what the antinomians believed.  I assumed that antinomians were people who believed that all one had to do to be saved was to trust Christ’s sacrifice, meaning good works were optional.  The Puritans often stressed out about their spirituality, as they frantically wondered whether or not they were part of God’s elect, looking at the moral or spiritual quality of their lives to make that determination.  I thought that the antinomians offered a way that was softer and easier on the human conscience: don’t fret about yourself and whether you’re good enough, but just trust Christ.  I was expecting to identify with the antinomians, and maybe even to root for them, even if I did not agree with them on everything.

It turned out that the antinomians were a bit different from what I expected.  Yes, they offered an alternative to the Puritan practice of stressing out about salvation, an alternative that many would find refreshing.  Yes, they emphasized trusting Christ, while criticizing the Puritans for looking to rituals and means of grace for spiritual growth.  Some antinomians went so far as to question whether faith was even instrumental for salvation: if God picked a person to be saved, then that person was saved, and that person’s faith was of secondary importance. That sounds like a downplay of all good works, including faith!

But my impression was that antinomians did not treat good works and desisting from sin as optional, but rather as necessary.  Actually, they believed that those things should come easier for a Christian on account of Christ’s grace—-that the Puritan assumption that humans were just sinful and would remain sinful until their dying day was misguided.  Some antinomians were perfectionists—-they believed that Christ made them perfect.  Of course, they had to redefine perfection against the realities of their own imperfections—-their mistakes were not technically sins, or whatever sins they did commit did not flow from a morally corrupt nature.  But they believed that human beings in this life could be transformed and arrive at a state of genuine spirituality, maybe even union with God.  The Puritans, by contrast, expected the Christian life to be more of an uphill battle, one that required discipline, struggle, self-doubt, reliance on ritual, and agony.  Antinomians sometimes struggled, too, but they were more optimistic about arriving at a place where struggle would be unnecessary.

Antinomianism means being against law.  In what sense were the antinomians against law?  Well, they believed that the Mosaic law had been abolished.  Puritans, by contrast, thought that parts of the Mosaic law were still applicable to Christians.  Antinomians dismissed Puritan observance of the Sunday Sabbath as legalistic and unnecessary.  Antinomians held that the law of Christ was superior to the law of Moses, for the law of Moses commanded people to love their neighbors as themselves, whereas the law of Christ depicts and encourages self-sacrifice for others.  Moreover, antinomians questioned whether they even needed an external authority or law-code to tell them what to do, for they maintained that they had the mind of God and could do right automatically.  Although Puritans contended that antinomians were promoting libertinism, that was not exactly the case.

There was some overlap between the antinomians of seventeenth century England and today’s hyper-grace movement.  For example, some antinomians claimed that believers did not have to confess their sins regularly to God.  There are hyper-grace teachers today who have the same belief.

There was more to Como’s book.  One figure who became more of an antinomian initially observed the Saturday Sabbath, like the Jews.  That stood out to me, as one who was raised in a seventh-day Sabbatarian tradition.  One antinomian interpreted the Bible symbolically, as if it concerned the spiritual or interior life of a believer.  The Antichrist, for instance, referred to the Antichrist inside each of us, as far as he was concerned.  That reminded me of one rather unorthodox Christian I know, who interpreted the Book of Revelation in light of his own personal suffering!  Still another antinomian view was that God was inside of each person, but that only believers were awakened to that.  That reminded me somewhat of Gnosticism, but also of a universalist view that all are saved, even if they don’t know it (not that these particular antinomians were Gnostics, or universalists).

There were also interesting debates about whether God saw the sins of believers, and whether God punished believers.  Antinomians said no on both.  One antinomian commented that God does not punish believers but puts them in situations to help them to grow.  On the debate about whether God saw the sins of believers, a Puritan said that God indeed saw them, since God saw everything.

I was expecting to identify with the antinomians in reading this book, but I ended up identifying more with the Puritans—-those who saw the Christian life as an uphill struggle, and who looked to rituals to help them on their journey.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

About to Vote in a Republican Primary

Although I lean more in the progressive direction politically, I am registered as a Republican.  The reason is that, where I live, the primaries are closed, which means that only registered Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries, and only registered Republicans can vote in Republican primaries.  I wanted to vote for Ron Paul in the 2012 Republican Presidential primary, so I registered as a Republican.  Am I a total libertarian, since I like Ron Paul?  No.  But I like a lot of what Ron Paul has had to say—-against corporatism, against the current state of the prison system, against war.  He is not afraid to speak his mind, even when that goes against what is often touted as mainstream thought.  I have a libertarian friend who likes both Ron Paul and Elizabeth Warren.  People scratch their heads at that, wondering how someone can like two public officials who have such differing worldviews.  I don’t scratch my head at that at all, though, for I am much the same way.  Ron Paul and Elizabeth Warren may criticize each other, but I admire and respect them both, for they are unafraid to challenge the establishment.

Anyway, I was thinking of voting in a Republican primary yesterday.  Republican Congressman Richard Hannah was being challenged by Tea Partier Claudia Tenney.  My mom and her husband are both left-leaning independents.  They voted for Hannah when he first ran for Congress, for he was pro-choice and he spoke in favor of the Ground Zero mosque (though he would later retract that support), whereas his Democratic opponent had rather conservative positions.  The next time Hannah ran, however, my mom’s husband voted for his Democratic opponent, Dan Lamb, on account of Hannah’s support for fracking.

I was thinking of voting for Hannah yesterday.  I was proud that he was my Congressman when he was mentioned on Bill Moyers’ program as one of the Congressmen who sponsored legislation to repeal a government giveaway to the pharmaceutical company Amgen (see here).  Hannah, a Republican, co-sponsored that legislation with Democrats.  He is also progressive on LGBT issues.  On abortion, well, he is pro-choice, and I am not enthusiastic about the pro-choice position because I believe that the fetus is a human being.  Still, I think that there are cases in which abortion is the lesser of two evils, and I support efforts to reduce the abortion rate by means other than inflexible legislation (i.e., through reducing poverty instead).  Hannah struck me as a reasonable moderate Republican.

I felt sorry for his Tea Party opponent, though.  Every night, we were inundated with pro-Hannah ads that attacked Claudia Tenney as a liberal who supported higher taxes.  Pro-Hannah ads showed Hannah speaking into the camera saying that he wanted to repeal Obamacare and supported the Second Amendment.  That did not resonate with me, for Obamacare is dear to my heart (though I have issues with requiring businesses at and above a certain size to provide insurance, and would prefer having those employees buy from the exchange instead).  Several times a week, we got pro-Hannah fliers attacking Tenney.  Come to think of it, the very first Tenney ad that I saw was on the very day of the election, around 6 p.m.  She was saying that Hannah’s attacks were false, and, in the upper left hand, we saw that conservative radio and Fox-News host Sean Hannity was endorsing her.  Rudy Giuliani had appeared in ads for Hannah, however.

Even though Tenney was clearly outspent, she managed to get 47% of the vote.  I was a bit surprised, but not totally, due to Eric Cantor being defeated by a Tea Partier not long before.  As I read more about Tenney, I admired her: she had been a single mom, and her son was now a marine.  Still, I did not want another obstructionist Tea Partier in Congress.  Does that jive with my support for anti-establishment politicians?  Well, it depends on where they take their anti-establishment views.  Holding the country hostage with the debt ceiling is unacceptable, in my opinion.

I did not get to vote.  There was a chance of rain, and I do not have a car.  I did not want to get caught in the rain on my way to the polling place.  But the afternoon turned out to be sunny, so I guess I could have voted.  How would I have voted?  Probably for Hannah, even though I usually prefer the underdog.  Part of me is glad that Tenney got 47% of the vote!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Holiday Blues

A thought has occurred to me more than once: according to my recollections, I had the “holiday blues” more often after I quit drinking, than I did before.  I wonder why that was.  Isn’t sobriety, after all, supposed to entail an improvement?

“You didn’t feel the holiday blues back then because before you were drunk,” someone may answer.  Well, that is not exactly true.  One year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, I worked on writing papers all day, without feeling the least bit depressed.  On other pre-sobriety Thanksgivings and Christmases when I was alone, I drank some, but not a whole lot.  I look back on my pre-sobriety holidays alone, and they are a blur to me, whereas I actually remember each sobriety holiday alone.  These pre-sobriety holidays just came, and they went.  I enjoyed the time off from school.  Sometimes, I went to see a movie.  If I have any negative recollection of them, it was that I was often disappointed that I could not find anything open on those days.  But I figured that this was how the holidays were, and they would soon be over.

After my sobriety date, when I spent the holidays alone, I felt very depressed.  It was like I was consciously trying to make myself happy, since I was supposed to be happy on the holidays, and I was failing miserably.  One year was not that bad because I went to a few meetings, but in doing so I was consciously beating off the holiday blues.  I don’t remember doing that prior to my sobriety.
I don’t deal with holiday blues nowadays because I am not alone.  It’s just interesting to me that my pre-sobriety holidays alone were better than my sobriety holidays alone.  I wonder why that was.  Maybe it was because, in sobriety, I was starting to encounter people who wrestled with the holiday blues, so I was more aware of them.  Also, I had started blogging, so maybe thinking and reflecting too much made me unhappy.  I don’t know.  I will say one other thing, though: I have more good days in general in sobriety than I did before sobriety.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Write-Up: Harry Emerson Fosdick, by Robert Moats Miller

Robert Moats Miller.  Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet.  Oxford University Press, 1985.

I first heard of Harry Emerson Fosdick back when I was in college.  I was preparing a presentation on the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920′s, and I came across one of Christianity Today‘s Church History sections.  It featured a excerpt from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s epic sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, and also an excerpt from a writing of conservative Bible scholar J. Gresham Machen.   Fosdick was depicted as a liberal modernist voice, whereas Machen was featured as a fundamentalist.  My impression was that, whereas fundamentalists believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Jesus, miracles, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the literal second coming of Christ, modernists had issues with those doctrines.  I would read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism not long after, and Machen essentially argued in that book that the liberal Christianity of his day was not Christianity at all.

My professor was far from being a fundamentalist, and she said that Machen was a good scholar.  I will write about Machen sometime in the future, for I checked out a book about his biblical scholarship.  My post here is about Fosdick.  I would come across Fosdick’s name several times after my presentation.  The campus rabbi told me that he heard Fosdick preach and that Fosdick was a marvelous preacher.  I had a hard time envisioning a liberal Protestant as a great preacher, since I assumed that most of the powerful Christian preaching was on the conservative side, but what the rabbi said stayed with me.  I would also see positive quotations of Fosdick in evangelical publications that I would read, and Fosdick seemed to me to be very spiritual and down-to-earth, which did not exactly fit my stereotype of liberal Protestants.  Moreover, I found a copy of Fosdick’s A Guide to Understanding the Bible.  I did not finish the book—-I still have the last chapter to go—-but I really enjoyed it (see my post here).  If I ever find myself teaching an introduction to Hebrew Bible class, I will probably assign students this book (that, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?), for it captures the diversity within the Hebrew Bible.

I was recently reading some blog posts about Machen, and I wanted to read more about Machen and Fosdick.  I was especially interested in Fosdick’s role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and his religious ideas.  I had long seen Robert Moats Miller’s lengthy biography of Fosdick on bookshelves in libraries and bookstores, and I finally decided to read it.  It was not quite what I hoped for or expected, but I am really glad to have read it.

The book did not go into an incredible amount of detail about the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, at least not as much as I hoped.  It did, however, include a lengthy section about Fosdick’s theology.  In my opinion, Fosdick’s theology was insightful in some areas, more conservative than people think in other areas, and more muddled than I would like.  I am still scratching my head about whether he believed that Jesus was the literal incarnation of God, for he seemed to talk out of both sides of his mouth on that.  The same goes with his stance on miracles, for he appears to have been rather naturalistic and dismissive of them, and yet he occasionally made statements that may indicate that he did not exclude their possibility.

Overall, Fosdick believed in a literal personal God and the human ability to experience God.  He believed in an afterlife.  He wrote a book on prayer.  While he did not accept a Calvinistic God of judgment, he still believed that God had wrath over sin, and that the Holocaust severely challenged modernist/liberal optimism about human progress.  He regarded the atonement as a mystery, yet he maintained that Jesus’ death on the cross displayed the costliness of God’s forgiveness of sin.  He had problems with the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus.  Fosdick’s rather liberal stance towards religion may trace back to his childhood.  While he would present himself as rejecting the Calvinism of his youth, his upbringing was a bit more liberal than he let on, for he had open discussions with his father about religion, had an eccentric skeptical uncle, and read fictional books that were rather anti-Calvinist (which, fortunately for me, I found for free on Amazon Kindle!). While Fosdick was not an off-the-wall liberal, for his religion had a down-to-earth quality, he was quite thoughtful, and that may have to do with how he was raised.

Although Fosdick was involved in World War I and would even parrot anti-German propaganda, he would come to oppose war, including American participation in World War II, and he wrote a powerful statement about how war channels the positive attributes of humanity (i.e., bravery, loyalty, etc.) into a negative, destructive direction. 

Fosdick made racist statements in his youth and was naive about racism, and he opposed intermarriage between the races, even as a pastor.  Yet, his church was integrated and was said to treat all races with respect.  Fosdick as a preacher would preach against racism, and Martin Luther King, Jr. counted him a friend.  Fosdick was also proud of his granddaughter when she was arrested in her fight against racial segregation.  Fosdick was also a champion of social justice.  When he was criticizing the excesses of capitalism, his friend and benefactor of his church, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., tried to assure Fosdick was he was not that type of capitalist, for he treated his workers well and gave to charity.

The book also went into Fosdick’s popularity as a preacher and a writer, his effectiveness as a therapist in helping depressed people see the stars in the sky with only a few sessions (though he did not always recognize those he helped on the street, and he needed his wife to help him out with names), and his church’s massive outreach to the community.  Many conservative Christians like to say that liberal mainline churches are dead and lacking in the Spirit, that liberalism is stuffy and heady and has nothing practical or helpful to offer to the person on the street.  Well, Fosdick’s church was certainly alive and active, and his works were popular with a lot of people!  According to Miller, there were even fundamentalists who liked Fosdick’s sermons, even if they did not like the fact that Fosdick was the one preaching them!

If I had a favorite part of the book, it was where Fosdick was actually criticizing modernism.  The quintessential modernist is criticizing modernism!  Imagine that!  Even conservative pastor John MacArthur praises Fosdick on this (see here).  In that statement, Fosdick said that many think that Christianity is doing well in the modern age when a couple of scientists profess belief in God, but Fosdick believed that Christianity was a lot more powerful than that, for it was an experience of God and had the power to transform lives.  I have to admit that sometimes I feel that Christianity is legitimate because a Ph.D. believes in it, or because a famous celebrity accepts it.  While it is good to respect people for their convictions and to read Christian scholars’ arguments, I should remember that religion is powerful, apart from whether smart or famous people embrace it.  This Fosdick quote especially resonated with me, for it is what I so look for: “The primary problem in Christian apologetics today is not to construct coercive arguments for the existence of God but to achieve a concept of God which will require a minimum of argument, because its intelligibility, reasonableness and relevance to human need carry a self-authenticating authority” (quoted on pages 396-397).  Well said!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Baptism, the Sermon on the Mount, and Hyper-Grace

At church this morning, we had an adult baptism.  Normally, my church baptizes infants.  Today’s adult baptism was noteworthy, in my opinion, because it was so authentic.  We weren’t just going through the motions, vowing as a congregation that we would do our part to nourish someone’s faith, when chances were that we would never see that person ever again, or that we wouldn’t see that person often (usually it would the next time a baby is baptized).  That’s my impression of most of the infant baptisms that we do.  But the person who was baptized today has been going to our church for over a year.  He actually committed his life to Christ.  Today, he was marking that commitment with baptism.  The liturgy was good because it was about God spiritually strengthening him from now until Christ comes back.  It was a beautiful part of the service.

The pastor preached about the Sermon on the Mount. That stood out to me because I was listening to a couple of things about the Sermon on the Mount yesterday.  I was listening to a couple of hyper-grace teachers, who said that the Sermon on the Mount was part of the Old Covenant and was basically Jesus telling Israel what God’s law was truly about, presumably challenging Israel that she could not live up to God’s high standards.  And I listened to Dr. Michael Brown’s arguments against that particular viewpoint.  The hyper-grace view made sense to me, but, as I read the Sermon on the Mount in church, doubts about that view emerged in my mind.  Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples (even though there were crowds listening to him by the Sermon’s end).  Why would he give his own disciples a temporary message?

Still, I can identify with where the hyper-grace people are coming from because I have long struggled with the Sermon on the Mount.  God doesn’t forgive me if I don’t forgive others?  How is that free grace?  What does forgiveness mean, anyway?  Do I have to re-enter a relationship with the person who wronged me?  What if I just can’t stand being around that person?  What does it mean for me to leave my gift at the altar and to go and be reconciled with someone who has something against me?  That I can’t worship God until I reconcile with someone else?  My shyness is a bit of a barrier to that!  And will I go to hell for lusting after a woman, or for being angry at someone?  Moreover, why does Jesus appear so exclusive, saying that it is the narrow way that leads to life, and that most won’t find it?

The pastor at church was saying that we are utterly dependent on God to keep the Sermon on the Mount.  That explains a few of the beatitudes, particularly the ones about being poor in spirit (humble) and hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  Still, my pastor was not touching on the really hard parts of the Sermon: the parts about hell and destruction and not being forgiven and not entering the Kingdom unless my righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.

I told my pastor after church that I enjoyed his sermon, and I did, since it put things into perspective.  I told him about hyper-grace preachers, but I may have misrepresented what they taught: I said that they say that the Sermon on the Mount is part of the Old Covenant, and thus we don’t have to keep it.  But I wonder if that is truly the case.  Granted, they don’t believe that God operates according to the Sermon on the Mount—-that God withholds forgiveness from us if we don’t forgive others, to use an example.  This is the age of grace, as far as they are concerned.  Still, I am very hesitant to conclude that they dismiss the principles of the Sermon on the Mount (forgive, reconcile, love enemies, don’t hate or lust, etc.).

That said, I told my pastor that I liked his balanced approach: the Sermon has rules, and yet we are absolutely dependent on God’s power and love to fulfill it.  I think that my pastor understood where I was coming from, even if I did not explicitly say it: that the Sermon on the Mount is hard for me, and that applying it harshly and legalistically does not bear much fruit in my life, for I need God’s love and grace.

Anyway, I’ll continue to listen to that grace podcast.  I will also listen to Michael Brown and other critics of hyper-grace.  When I am in a sugary sweet mood and want to bring my emotions down a but, I will listen to John MacArthur.  Hey, it worked yesterday!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

I Chronicles 15

My post about I Chronicles 15 today will focus more on what a commentary said about a verse in I Chronicles 15, rather than the contents of the chapter itself.

I Chronicles 15:1 states: “And David made him houses in the city of David, and prepared a place for the ark of God, and pitched for it a tent” (KJV).

David had brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  There, he pitched a tent for it.  He did not take the Ark to the Tabernacle at Gibeon, even though the Tabernacle was long the place where the Ark of the Covenant resided, until they got separated from each other.  Rather, David pitched another tent for the Ark.  Why?  E.W. Bullinger in The Companion Bible says the following:

“Had the Tabernacle of Moses been brought to Jerusalem, difficulties would have arisen in building the Temple.  David’s Tabernacle was merely provisional.  The provision will yet be repeated before the erection of the future Temple.  See Acts 15:16.”

Bullinger’s point may be that it was just better for the Tabernacle to be out of the way when the Temple was being built.  The Tabernacle was a holy object and had to be handled with extreme care.  David’s tent for the Ark, however, was just a provisional tent for the Ark.  It would be easier to work around David’s provisional tent than it would be to work around the sacred Tabernacle.  At least that’s my guess about what Bullinger means when he says that “Had the Tabernacle of Moses been brought to Jerusalem, difficulties would have arisen in building the Temple.”

But you may have noticed that Bullinger goes a step further.  He thinks that, in the future, there will be a repeat of this: that there will be a provisional tent of David that will exist until the new Temple is built.

Bullinger quotes Acts 15:16, which is actually a quotation of Amos 9:11.  Amos 9:11 states: “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old” (KJV).

So the Tabernacle of David will be reestablished.  Will this be like the tent that David made for the Ark in Jerusalem?  If not, what exactly is the Tabernacle of David that Amos 9:11 is mentioning?
I checked out my E-Sword commentaries.  One view is that Amos 9:11 is acknowledging that the palace of David had degenerated from palace to hut, with all the problems that Jerusalem was experiencing.  Indeed, the Tabernacle of David probably refers to where David’s descendant will be rather than the place of the Ark of the Covenant, for Isaiah 16:5 depicts the Davidic descendant sitting upon the throne in the Tent of David, judging righteously.  Amos 9:11 and Isaiah 16:5 may be treating this Tabernacle of David as provisional until the Davidic ruler gets a palace: after Israel’s restoration, after all, it may take a while before Israel gets on her feet enough to build the Davidic ruler a palace.  Or perhaps those passages long for a simple time, when the king sits in a lowly Tabernacle rather than a haughty palace.

The problem, in my opinion, with saying that the Tabernacle of David will be a Tabernacle for the Ark until the Temple is rebuilt is that Jeremiah 3:16 forecasts a time when the Ark of the Covenant will never again come to people’s minds.  Bullinger himself says that the Ark was destroyed with the Temple, Jerusalem, and the Old Covenant.  So what does Bullinger believe the future Tabernacle of David will house until the Temple is rebuilt?  God’s presence, apart from the Ark?  The thing is, the point of Jeremiah 3:16 seems to be that God will be enthroned in Jerusalem and will not need an Ark.  Zechariah 14:21 may have a similar vision, for it affirms that every pot in Judah and Jerusalem will be holy.  If God’s glory then will be too big to be confined to an Ark, why should we assume that it will be confined to a tent?  Yet, Ezekiel may have a different vision from that of Jeremiah and Zechariah, for it does depict an eschatological Temple.

Friday, June 20, 2014

What Makes a Person Good?

I read a post this morning by Derek Leman, Whatever Happened to On, Son of Peleth.  You can read the post if you want to learn who On, son of Peleth is.  What I want to do here is interact with something that Derek says:

“God’s mercy triumphs over his judgment. Those who begin in rebellion can still extricate themselves from judgment. Those who uproot the will to do the deed are as those who uproot the deed itself.

“Is our sense of God’s mercy that strong? Do we assume sinners that we see as we go about our daily lives are people likely to find redemption? Do we sneer when we see a Zacchaeus-like character doing something religious or charitable? Or do we, like Yeshua, grant their actions and words credibility, welcoming them into the kingdom of heaven?”

What makes a person good?  What makes a deed good?  I remembering watching Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman Years ago, and, in one episode, a tornado was hitting the town.  Hank, the bad boy of the show, the guy who owned the saloon, pimped prostitutes, and often did not care for anybody but himself (yet showed a soft side every now and then), was about to save someone’s life.  “Hank’s trying to get some heaven points,” someone watching the show with me said.  You do have to wonder why Hank suddenly started acting altruistically!  I doubt it was a sign of his genuine character!

I also think of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.  “It is too late for me, my son.”  He didn’t feel that he could turn to good, for he was so far along on the bad path.  One act—-throwing the Emperor into the shaft when the Emperor was shocking Luke—-marked Darth Vader’s turn from darkness to light.

I can do a good deed here, but does that make me a good person, if I have a flaw there?  Some Christians talk as if God does not accept incomplete obedience.  Some Christians also like to focus on the motive behind a good deed.  Is it to earn salvation?  Is it to get approval from others?  If so, then it doesn’t count.  Or so they say.

Can a random good deed make a person good?  How many good deeds does one have to do before one counts as good?  I wonder this myself.  Reaching out to others is not particularly natural to me.
Then there’s grace.  God accepts me as righteous, even if technically I am not, on account of what Jesus did.  But I’m hesitant to believe that, since I don’t want to be like the Christian jerks I know—-people who are far from loving, yet take refuge in God’s grace.  And yet, then again, who am I to say that they should not trust God’s grace?  I just wish it would lead to them being more loving.  But who am I to talk?  There are people who can say the same thing about me!

This may come as a surprise to you, but this is actually one of the few days when I am not stressing out over these questions.  My blogging and my state of mind are not always the same thing.  Today, I just prefer to let myself and others be, without worrying about whether I am perfect, or even good.  That doesn’t mean that I will do bad.  It just means that I refuse to make the perfect the enemy of the good.  If I were stressing out over these issues today, this post would communicate that—-you’d see anger, you’d see ranting, you’d see passion.

The sun is shining.  The wind is blowing.  Why blow a perfectly good day on introspection that leads to negative thinking?  Unfortunately, in my case, thinking about religion contributes to precisely that.  So I’ll be pretty selective today about the sermons I listen to!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ramblings on Jeremiah 30:21: The Prince Who Dares (Or Engages His Heart) to Approach God

Jeremiah 30:21 states—-and here I will quote the New Revised Standard Version because that is what I read in my daily quiet time—-”Their prince shall be one of their own, their ruler shall come from their midst; I will bring him near, and he shall approach me, for who would otherwise dare to approach me? says the LORD.”

The KJV is a bit different: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them; and I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me? saith the LORD.”  Whereas the NRSV presents God asking who would dare to approach God unless God brought him near, the KJV depicts the prince engaging his heart to approach God.

The LXX seems to apply to all of Israel what the MT relates to the prince.  To quote Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint: “And their mighty ones shall be over them, and their prince shall proceed of themselves; and I will gather them, and they shall return to me: for who is this that has set his heart to return to me? saith the Lord.”  God in the LXX is gathering to himself the people of Israel, not just the prince.  Or the “them” whom God is gathering could be the mighty ones, but I think that it makes more sense to interpret the “them” as all of Israel, for soon before “them” in that verse is “themselves,” and that refers to Israel.

The HarperCollins Study Bible states in its commentary on v 21: “To approach God was normally a priestly prerogative (see Ex 29.4, 8; 40.12, 14; Lev 7.35).  Cf. Ezekiel’s prince in Ezek 46.1-18.”  John MacArthur in his study Bible similarly says that the Governor in Jeremiah 30:21 is approaching God as a priest.  MacArthur goes so far as to suggest that this Governor is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah 30:21 surprised me somewhat, but it also baffled me a bit.  I did not know that Jeremiah envisioned an eschatological paradise in which the prince would approach God as a priest.  What I did not understand, however, was the part of the verse asking who would dare to approach God, or who would engage his heart to approach God.  Why is that part there?  What point is it making in its context?  “It teaches us that we do not deserve to enter into the glorious presence of God,” someone might say.  Sure, but why did Jeremiah throw that point in?  What was its function within the passage, what Jeremiah was saying, and the historical situation that he was addressing?

Perhaps its function is to assure Israel that her representative—-the prince—-can approach God, in a time when Israel may be doubting this.  Israel has just experienced devastation and exile.  She has suffered from God’s holy hatred of sin, and she may feel unworthy to approach God, especially a God so glorious that no human being could casually approach him.  God could be comforting Israel by reassuring her that her representative would be approaching him, and yet God wants to indicate that this is indeed a remarkable task, for who would approach so holy and glorious a God?

Suppose that part of the verse does not mean “who would otherwise dare to approach me” and instead means “who is this that engaged his heart to approach me”?  Could the point be that the prince is taking the initiative in approaching God, that he recognizes his and his people’s need for God and thus approaches God in faith?  It’s like Moses taking the initiative of going to the Tent of Meeting and seeking God’s face, when Israel is alienated from God due to the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 33).  Is the prince taking leadership as a man of God, as Moses did?  Well, perhaps.  I read one commentary that suggested that.  But Jeremiah 30:21 is not just saying that the prince is approaching God, but that God is drawing the prince to him.  It’s not just about the prince’s initiative, but God’s invitation and initiative.  God is making the first move.  Could the point of Jeremiah 30:21 be that no one would approach God, unless God first drew that person?  Does God want to emphasize his drawing of people to himself to comfort Israel that God loves and cares for her, or to stress that God deserves glory for Israel (or actually her representative) coming to him?

But why is God changing the rules and letting the ruler approach him, when before that only the priests could?  Well, perhaps it is hasty to assume that a king could not perform a priestly function before the exile.  There were biblical authors who believed that only priests could approach God in the sanctuary, but there are also parts of the Bible where kings do priestly things, such as wearing an ephod or blessing the people.  See my post here about Psalm 110, where the Davidic king (presumably, according to certain historical-critical interpretations) is said to be of the priesthood of Melchizedek.

Or maybe Jeremiah’s point is that, in Israel’s eschatological restoration, there will be greater intimacy between Israel and God.  Jeremiah 33:21-22 envisions the restoration of the Levitical priesthood, so there will be Levites in Jeremiah’s eschatological paradise.  But perhaps the point of Jeremiah 30:21 is that holy priests will not be standing between Israel and a holy God, for Israel’s representative, her prince, will be able to approach God.  God in that case is identifying himself even more with Israel, a refreshing message, in light of Israel’s experience of God’s wrath.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ramblings on Jeremiah 31:29-30 and People Being Punished for Their Own (Not Their Ancestors') Sins

I’m reading the Book of Jeremiah for my daily quiet time.  Something from Jeremiah 31 jumped out at me.  Vv 29-30 say:

“In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.  But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” (KJV).

“In those days” refers to the time after Israel’s restoration from exile, for what is what Jeremiah 31 is about.  The passage is saying that, after God has punished Israel and later restored her to her land, made her populous, and blessed her, God’s policy will be that each Israelite will be punished (die) for his or her own sin, not the sins of his or her ancestors.

Ezekiel had the same idea (Ezekiel 18:2), only he took it in a different direction from Jeremiah.  Ezekiel was telling the Judahites—-prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.—-that God’s policy is to punish Israelites for their own sins, not the sins of their ancestors.  If the Israelites fall to foreign invaders, as far as Ezekiel is concerned, then it is their fault, and they are not suffering for what their ancestors did.  Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:29-30 is saying, by contrast, that this (individual punishment) will be God’s policy after Israel’s eschatological restoration.

Does Jeremiah believe that God’s policy before then was to punish Israel for the sins of her ancestors?  Well, Jeremiah acknowledged that Israel’s ancestors were sinful (i.e., Jeremiah 7:23-27), so ancestral sins probably played some role in God’s punishment of Israel, as far as Jeremiah was concerned.  At the same time, Jeremiah lambasted Israel’s current sins, and Jeremiah said that God would relent from God’s planned punishment if Israel repented (Jeremiah 18; 26).  My impression is that, for Jeremiah, God was punishing Israel both for the sins of her ancestors and also for her own sins.

Of course, I can’t be too dogmatic about what Jeremiah thought.  Some have argued that not all of the Book of Jeremiah is by Jeremiah but had Deuteronomistic influence, and this includes not only narrative parts but some of the prophecies as well.  See my post here from a while back.  For example, whereas the Pentateuch depicts Israel in the wilderness quite negatively—-as stiffnecked, stubborn, faithless, and sinful in her relationship with her God—-Jeremiah 2:2 romanticizes Israel’s following of God into the wilderness.  Jeremiah 2:2 arguably differs, not only from the Pentateuch, but also from what Jeremiah 7 says about Israel soon after the Exodus refusing to listen to God.  Can those thing be reconciled?  That’s open to debate, I guess.  Still, if we were to rip away everything non-Jeremian from the Book of Jeremiah, my hunch is that we would still see Jeremiah condemning the sins of his Israelite contemporaries, believing that his contemporaries’ sins would play some role in their coming downfall.  Why else would Jeremiah prophesy to them?

In all honesty, I do not know why Jeremiah 31:29-30 stresses that Israelites, after Israel’s restoration, will be punished only for their own sins.  Is the point that they are getting a new beginning, that they do not have to worry about ancestral baggage, that they can go forward freely, appreciating that they are responsible for themselves and themselves alone?  Maybe.  Of course, they were responsible for themselves before the Babylonian captivity, but there were voices that were saying that their ancestors’ sins were hanging over their head, that their repentance could perhaps postpone God’s wrath but not totally eliminate it.  I think of II Kings 23:25-26, which affirms that, righteous King Josiah’s reforms notwithstanding, God’s anger was not turned away from Judah, for a previous king of Judah, Manasseh, had so provoked God with his horrible sins.

I should note something else: Jeremiah seems to be acknowledging that, after Israel’s eschatological restoration, there will still be sinners.  This, even though Jeremiah goes on in Jeremiah 31 to say that God will write God’s laws on Israelites’ minds and hearts, and everyone will automatically know the LORD.  How will there be sinners—-and not only sinners, but sinners bad enough to deserve death (as Jeremiah 31:30 appears to imply)—-if God will spiritual transform Israelites and yield them to righteousness?  Does there have to be a willingness on their part to be transformed, otherwise the transformation does not take effect?  I wrote some posts a while back on a similar topic, only I was focusing on Ezekiel.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Scattered Ramblings on Whether This World Is the Best Possible World

I read a couple of posts this week about the question of whether this world is the best possible world.  See here and here.  The first is on an atheist web site.  The second is on the blog of Arminian Roger Olson.

The philosopher Leibniz is credited with saying that this world is the best possible world.  I have not read Leibniz.  I first read about him and his claim that this is the best possible world in James Byrne’s Religion and the Enlightenment.  I was thinking of checking out the Cambridge Companion to Leibniz last time I was at the library, but I did not do so.  Now, I’m tempted to read it.

Asking you to keep in mind that I do not know much about Leibniz, I’d like to quote what R.L. Culpeper says about him:

“…according to Leibniz, God is omnipotent but he cannot break rules of logic; and, if he were to alter one aspect of this world, there would be a consequence felt somewhere else. Thus, God created this world such that the perfect balance of evil to good exists. Whereby, we might experience the evil in order to experience the good, but to such a degree that the good outweighs the evil. His intellect and power, moreover, are infinite insofar as his awareness to all of the possible worlds and his capability to actualize any of them is concerned. This represents the claim that this world is ‘the best of all possible worlds.’”

God is good in allowing us to have free will, but free will can lead to evil.  And the presence of evil enhances our appreciation of the good.  That’s why the world is as it is, and, according to Leibniz, it is the best possible world.  Consequently, Culperer asks, will not heaven be like this?  Will there be free will (and thus evil) in heaven?  Will God permit evil in heaven because that will enhance our appreciation of the good?  Many Christians will answer “no.”  But why do they say “no”?  If this is the best possible world, why won’t heaven be this way?  Will heaven be inferior to what we have now?

Roger Olson addresses similar issues.  If this is the best possible world, what about the coming eschatological paradise that Scripture talks about?  We expect that to be better.  If that is the case, then this world is not the best possible world, right?  A better one is coming.

Olson makes the point that “I take it that even Leibniz thought there was a better world coming, so when he argued that this is the best of all possible worlds he meant ‘for now.’ Saying this is the best world leading up to the best of all possible worlds is the same as saying this is the best of all possible worlds—right now.”  That would make sense, though Roger Olson doesn’t exactly buy it.

I appreciate these posts because they do undercut certain Christian apologetic arguments that I have heard.  “There is evil because God gave us free will, and free will is good because God wants us to love him freely, otherwise we would be robots.”  But will God dispense with free will when we get to heaven or eschatological paradise?  Will God at that time be open to robotic humans loving him?  In the biblical prophetic writings, we see God in the eschatological future essentially programming Israel so that she does right—-so that she automatically obeys God’s laws.  Does this violate free will?  One could answer “No.”  After all, God can give Israel desires that are in accordance with righteousness, and so, when Israel does what’s right, she is actually doing what she wants, freely.  Of course, God has programmed Israel to want a certain thing.  Still, she’s choosing to do right because she’s acting according to her desires.  It’s like the reverse of original sin: we were born with a propensity to evil, and yet, in doing evil, we are acting according to our desires.  We are doing what we like, and thus we are responsible, according to many Christians.

If free will can coincide with us being programmed to want righteousness, however, then why couldn’t God have done this at the outset?  Why give us a free will that can permit us to do evil?
In asking whether this is the best possible world, I think we should add a few words to the question: Is this the best possible world for what?  What is the goal of this world being as it is?  God perhaps made this world so that we can build character.  For character to be produced, there needs to be adversity.  Is this the best possible world for that?  Well, that’s debatable.  How about the people who die before they can build character?  And are suffering people guinea pigs for my moral education?  Still, I think that people are looking at worlds and asking if they are the best possible worlds, without asking what the goals of those worlds might be.  Maybe, in this season, the best possible world for us is one with adversity.  Eventually, however, another world would be appropriate.  Here and now, we’re building character and making choices and seeing why right is right and wrong is wrong.  After we learn that, we can move on into a world of total righteousness.

Neither post, as far as I can see, mentions the Fall.  Of course, the Fall is difficult because science has challenged it.  It’s hard to believe that there was no death or chaos at all in the world before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, for there are fossils of dead animals dating millions of years before Adam and Eve allegedly existed, plus entropy is essential to the universe.  Many Christians say that the world now is not the best possible world but is fallen—-it does not line up with God’s standards.  But God is making due with it, adapting God’s strategies to teach us righteousness in light of our fallen nature.  Is this the best possible world for that?  Well, people can debate that.  Suppose one does not believe in the Fall?  I guess, then, that God made things imperfect (from a certain sort of view) because coping with imperfection is how people can learn and grow.

There are problems in what I am saying.  For example, in biblical prophecies, we read of children being born in the eschatological paradise.  So will children be deprived of what we have now: the opportunity to build character through adversity?  Well, perhaps the lessons that the human race collectively learned will be passed on to them: the lessons of why right is right and wrong is wrong.

I’ll stop here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Write-Up: Radicals for Capitalism, by Brian Doherty

Brian Doherty.  Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.  New York: PublicAffairs, 2007.

I saw this book several years ago in a public library.  At least I think it was this book—-I know that I saw some history of libertarianism.  I wanted to read it because the topic interested me, but I was not sure if I wanted to make a commitment to reading over 700 pages.  Well, I finally read it.  And I am glad that I read it.

The book primarily focuses on the history of American libertarianism from the New Deal period to the time that the book was written.  The author sometimes discusses events before the New Deal, as when he goes into the backgrounds of the libertarian figures he profiles, or has a chapter detailing the history of support for limited government from Confucian and biblical times through the founding days of America.  Because the book was published in 2007, there are significant aspects of libertarianism’s history that are not there.  The Tea Party movement was not yet prominent, and Rand Paul had not yet become a Senator. 

The book was excellent in detailing the diverse approaches and personalities within the libertarian movement.  Libertarianism has been far from monolithic.  It ranges from those who believe in complete anarchy, to those who want to confine the government’s role to defense and/or protection, and even to a few who support some social safety net (I think here of Hayek).  Some are purists and lament that libertarianism’s growing popularity and access to power have diluted the libertarian message, whereas others are more realistic politically.  Many libertarians liked Barry Goldwater in 1964 because Goldwater was popularizing the libertarian message of less government, but there were libertarians who felt that Goldwater did not go far enough and that some of the things that he supported actually coincided with more government power rather than less.  One prominent libertarian criticized Goldwater’s support for right-to-work laws, for who is the government to step in and forbid businesses from setting up a closed shop if that is what the employers and employees want?  This libertarian also criticized Goldwater’s hawkish Cold War stance and support for the military-industrial complex.  While some libertarians (i.e., Ayn Rand) were supportive of the Cold War and military buildup, many were not.  They questioned whether the Soviet Union indeed had an expansionist agenda, feared growing state power in America more than the Soviet Union, believed that war negatively augmented the power of the U.S. Government, and alienated the hawkish American right while building bridges with the anti-war Left.

You may have heard of Austrian economics and Milton Friedman’s Chicago school.  They are different.  Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist, focused on the decisions of consumers rather than macro-economics and math; he believed that state planning was unhelpful to the economy because it did not efficiently distribute resources to where they needed to be, whereas the free market would demonstrate what people wanted and were willing to buy.  Hayek looked more at social trends.  And Friedman’s focus was more on macro-economics and monetary supply.  I should also mention that Friedman was instrumental in convincing President Richard Nixon to end the draft, and that there were libertarians who believed that Friedman was not libertarian enough (i.e., Friedman supported educational vouchers, whereas many libertarians did not believe that the government should give students money to attend the school of their choice).

The book also detailed the personalities within libertarianism.  These include Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Rose Wilder Lane (the daughter of Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder), the infamous Koch brothers, John Stossell, Neal Boortz, and the list goes on.  I was not always clear as to why some of these people became libertarians, but Doherty was effective in describing how people saw them and what happened in their life story.

In terms of policy issues, the book did a good job in its discussion of libertarian stances on environmental issues.  There are libertarians who question doomsday scenarios because they encourage a greater role for the government, but there are also libertarians who maintain that government promotes pollution and that the free market can reduce it.  The government allows pollution in common areas (i.e., water) because it believes some of it is necessary for economic growth, but suppose we did not have that and people could sue polluting companies.  (Of course, these libertarians support a court system, whereas some believe the court system should be private, and that people should pay to use it!)  Would that encourage those companies to come up with cleaner technology?  The book talked some about the issue of poverty and how libertarians tried to come up with a private social safety net, but I wish that the book addressed that more.  The book also could have used a discussion of libertarian proposals regarding health care.  I cringe when I read libertarians describe those who receive government assistance as takers or as moochers, but I am happy when they try to come up with ways to help society’s vulnerable.

The book also gave me background about other books I was wondering about.  When I was in high school, I was doing a project with some students, and we went to someone’s uncle’s house.  On his uncle’s bookshelf was John Bircher material, but also a book entitled The Roosevelt Myth, a book that was critical of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Well, I learned from Radicals for Capitalism that The Roosevelt Myth was written by John Flynn.  I found the book! 

Doherty’s book talked some about the question of whether big industrialists finance the libertarian movement because libertarian policies would further their economic interests, albeit not as much as I liked.  My impression is that Doherty was arguing that certain industrialists simply had an interest in libertarianism (as one might be interested in stamp collecting), even if their own interests (i.e., protective tariffs, crony capitalism) did not always coincide with libertarian ideology.  There may be something to that, but could it be the case that they support libertarianism while expecting the parts of it that are conducive to their economic interests to become policy, while the more eccentric parts (or parts contrary to their interests) do not?

I myself am not a libertarian, for I am not absolutist in my beliefs regarding the government’s role.  I support the social safety net, and I am open to national health insurance.  I do not believe that government always does things poorly, or that the private sector always does things well.  I do believe, however, that libertarianism raises important considerations: the importance of competition, the need to make sure the government does not infringe on personal liberty, areas in which government policies make matters worse rather than better, how crony capitalism is evil, etc.

Good book.  I should also mention that the author had an ironic sense of humor, which is another factor that made the book worth reading.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Casey Kasem

Casey Kasem has passed on.  I remember him from the show Saved by the Bell.  Also, back when I was in high school, I listened to him on the radio some Sundays, when he was doing his pop music/love song countdowns, and he read moving letters from people asking them to play certain songs that meant something to them, in light of what they had been through.  And, if I recall correctly, he also hosted a TV Land countdown.  He was called “America’s countdown king.”

R.I.P., Casey Kasem.

Trinity Sunday 2014

Today is Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day.  And the pastor explained the Trinity using the same modalist model that he used a few years ago (see here): in the same way that a father can be one person with three different roles—-father, grandfather, and son—-so likewise is God one person with three different roles, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Our liturgy also said that God revealed himself in three separate ways, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I wrote a few years ago, my church is Presbyterian, so it most likely believes that the Godhead contains three persons, as opposed to being one person who performs three roles.  Maybe my pastor understands what he’s saying differently from how I am understanding him.  That happens.

During church today, I was thinking about what Karen Armstrong says about the Cappadocian fathers in her book, A History of God.  I just now looked at the pages in which she discusses their understanding of the Trinity, on pages 115-117.  She focuses on Gregory of Nyssa.  According to her, Gregory of Nyssa believed that God is one, but that God manifests Godself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we experience God in those ways: we experience the Father as transcendent, the Son as creative, and the Holy Spirit as immanent.  The one God’s very essence, however, is “unnameable and unspeakable” (Gregory’s words, according to whatever translation Karen Armstrong is using).  The Trinity is how God reveals himself to us, not how God truly is in terms of his essence.

That doesn’t sound too different from what my pastor and the church’s liturgy were saying: there is one God, who manifests himself, and whom we experience, in three separate ways.  But I doubt that the Cappadocians were modalists.  How were they different from modalists, then?  And is Karen Armstrong conceptualizing Gregory of Nyssa’s position correctly?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I Chronicles 14

I Chronicles 14 is about David’s battle with the Philistines shortly after he became king.  A key theme that came up in my study of this chapter was David’s dependence on and obedience towards God.

1.  David inquired of God over whether he should go out against the Philistines, and God gave him the go-ahead, saying that God would deliver the Philistines into David’s hands.  David then went out, fought the Philistines, and won.  When the Philistines came back, David again inquired of God.  God once more gave him the go-ahead, but God also gave David specific instructions about how to fight this time.

This second time around, David was to wait to hear the sound going over the tops of the mulberry trees before he went out to fight the Philistines.  Why?  There are at least two explanations.  The Jewish commentator Radak said that the sound over the top of the mulberry trees would be the footsteps of God’s angels, who would be fighting the Philistines.  This makes sense to me, for I Chronicles 14:15 states that “God is gone forth before thee to smite the host of the Philistines” (KJV).  The idea is that the Israelites would have spiritual assistance as they smote their enemies.  Another explanation is that the sound going over the mulberry trees presented David with an opportune time to strike: the Philistines would think that the sound was just the wind, and they would not notice David and his forces coming out to strike them.  This is the opinion of the Jewish commentator Ralbag.

Both the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary and evangelical preachers see significance in David asking God a second time whether he should go out against the Philistines.  Why did David ask God a second time?  Wasn’t the first go-ahead enough?  Couldn’t David just conclude that, because God let him go out the first time and enabled him to win, God would do so again the second time, without David having to ask?  The Artscroll and Jimmy Swaggart both speculate that David, a military man, must have struggled with his desire to take matters into his own hands.  But David depended on God.  Moreover, according to Swaggart (and other evangelicals have made this point), David was serving a living God, and so God’s second strategy may not be the same as God’s first strategy.  The Artscroll contrasts David with his predecessor, King Saul.  Saul tended to become impatient and take matters into his own hands in disobedience to God’s will, and Saul failed to obey God completely.  David, by contrast, was willing to hear and to yield to God’s will.

2.  More than one commentator has noted that I Chronicles makes David into a follower of the Torah.  II Samuel 5:21 states that David carried away the idols of the Philistines, whereas I Chronicles 14:12 affirms that David burned the idols, which would be in accord with Deuteronomy 8:25.  There may be something to that.  The Torah as a book probably existed more fully when I Chronicles was written than when II Samuel was written, and so the Chronicler conformed David’s actions to what was commonly believed to be God’s will in the Chronicler’s time: the Torah.

But David in I Chronicles 14 does not entirely follow the Torah.  I Chronicles 14:3 narrates that David took more wives, whereas Deuteronomy 17:17 forbids the king to multiply wives to himself.  Perhaps the Chronicler did not consider that part of the Torah, or he did not interpret it as a blanket prohibition of polygamy: Deuteronomy 8:25 forbids the king from multiplying wives because that could turn his heart away, presumably from following God.  According to I Kings, that’s what happened to Solomon, whose foreign wives turned him towards idolatry.  The Chronicler may have thought that such was not a problem for David, whose wives were probably not idolatrous.

Conclusions: Do I believe in a living God who can specifically guide me in my day to day life, or do I rely on a past revelation—-the Bible—-for my instructions?  Many Christians do both.  They either look to the Bible as God’s general instructions while waiting for God’s voice on specific matters, or, for them, reading the Bible can be a way that God guides them each day, as God illuminates the words of Scripture and applies them to their specific situation.  I do not feel that I hear from God, to tell you the truth, at least in such a manner that I know it is God.  But I still pray to God, recognizing my dependence on him.  Obedience to God’s will in the Bible is also important, especially when that coincides with compassion and justice.  Yet, we all have blind spots, and our obedience is often incomplete.  God still looks for a willingness to obey, though.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Hyper-Grace, and Are Relationships with God Like Human Relationships?

I was watching a couple of YouTube videos yesterday.  They were about the Hyper-grace movement.  I blogged about that a few days ago.  See here.  In that particular link, I talk about Michael Brown’s criticism of the Hyper-grace movement.  Dr. Brown says that it maintains that we do not have to follow or obey Jesus, for all we have to do is accept God’s free grace.  He also stated that one of its beliefs is that we do not continually have to confess our sins to God to receive forgiveness, for God has already forgiven believers once they’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice for them on the cross.

Michael Brown said that he asks Hyper-grace people a question.  Suppose you get into an argument with your wife.  Don’t you feel the need to apologize to her?  If so, should you not apologize to God for your sins?  According to Michael Brown, Hyper-grace people usually answer that their relationship with God is different from their relationship with people.

Is it?  One preacher who is often labelled a Hyper-grace preacher (whether Michael Brown does so or not, I do not know, but I google “Hyper-grace preachers” and this name comes up) is Joseph Prince.  I was watching an excerpt of a sermon of his yesterday.  What I understood Prince to be saying is that believers should approach God, not as a sinner approaches a lord (which is how the repentant publican in Luke 18 approached God), but as a child approaches his father.  According to Prince, we’re in the relationship with God through Christ, and we don’t have to maintain that relationship through our performance.  So we have Joseph Prince, who is called a Hyper-grace preacher, likening the divine-believer relationship to a human relationship.

But there are Hyper-grace people who don’t think that the divine-believer relationship can be likened to human relationships.  Yesterday, I watched a video by American Wayne, who called into Michael Brown’s radio program.  American Wayne identified himself as one of the Hyper-grace people Michael Brown is criticizing.  American Wayne said that he used to be addicted to pornography, but the addiction faded when he stopped struggling and accepted God’s grace.  Michael Brown responded that he did not have much of a disagreement with that approach, but then Michael Brown went on to ask American Wayne his question: Would you apologize to God, as you would apologize to your wife after saying something bad to her?  American Wayne replied that he did not consider his relationship to God to be like human relationships.  God has already forgiven him in Christ.  Why, then, would he need to keep asking God for forgiveness?

Is my relationship with God like my relationship with human beings?  Do I apologize to God, as I do to human beings?  It’s something to think about!  To be honest, I pray more for strength to do right rather than asking for forgiveness for wrong.  That is, unless we’re talking about wrong that I genuinely feel guilty about, as opposed to what Christians, the Bible, etc., may say I should feel guilty about.  Yes, there is overlap between the two in my life, but I’m reluctant to beat myself up for being human or less than perfect.  Now, if I tell someone I love off, I feel a need to apologize to that person, and to God.  For some reason, though, I am very, very reluctant to apologize to God when I tell him off.  If I do apologize, it is so I will be on his good side rather than his bad side.  Sometimes, I may say, “Okay, I’m sorry for saying that—-if I am wrong about what you are like, and you are not really as bad as I think you are.”  Part of me feels that I am justified in being mad at God.

On a related note, I have a couple of things to share.  The first is a post by K.W. Leslie about the Romans torturing Jesus before Jesus was crucified.  This part caught my attention, probably because it resonated with me so much:

“There are a lot of people in the world, in our culture, who are really, really angry at God. Given the chance, they’d join the soldiers in smacking him around if they could. Doesn’t matter if he doesn’t deserve it; they’re convinced he does deserve it. He let their loved ones die, horribly. Or he didn’t give them the prayer-requests they begged for. Or he didn’t come through for them, and they thought they had a deal. Or their lives just suck in general, and they’ve convinced themselves a good, loving God should take away all the problems in the world; not have us solve them ourselves.  So this represents that: Humanity telling God what they really think of him. Doing to him what they really want to do to him, instead of love him. Jesus said they didn’t know what they were doing, Lk 23.34 ’cause they really didn’t; those who hate God, who find him frustrating, don’t understand him. And don’t really want to. They just want to hurt him.”

The hatred part resonated with me.  I hope that, with God’s grace, the realization that such hatred is wrong will resonate with me even more.

Second, American Wayne did a YouTube video in which he was responding to someone who felt a need for God, yet had a lot of fundamentalist evangelical baggage and was disillusioned with dogma.  He was wondering how exactly he should see the Bible.  American Wayne responded in a compassionate, understanding manner.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bart Ehrman and Michael Brown Debate Suffering

Yesterday, I listened to a debate between Michael Brown and Bart Ehrman on whether the Bible provides a sufficient answer for suffering.  Michael Brown argued yes, while Bart Ehrman argued no.  Both are biblical scholars.  You can read about Michael Brown here, and Bart Ehrman here.

It was a good debate.  Ehrman impressed me more than he usually does in debates of his that I have watched.  He was passionate and made his points well.  Michael Brown was good, too.

In terms of which side impressed me more, I tended to agree more with Ehrman about the Bible being a diverse book on the question of human suffering—-that sometimes suffering is treated in the Bible as a punishment from God, whereas other voices in the Bible see unfairness in terms of who suffers and who prospers.  I’m open to what Brown was arguing—-that God’s punishment of wicked Israel in the Bible does not mean that all suffering is from God, that there are scholars who believe Job’s dead children will be in the World to Come, according to the Book of Job (I’m curious as to who believes this), etc.  But, overall, Ehrman made a better biblical case, in my opinion.

Brown still raised good points, though.  If there is no God, what hope do we have that suffering will end or that sufferers will find peace or justice?  Brown also pointed to the Christians who are actually doing something about suffering in the world, and he asked if Ehrman’s worldview could inspire that kind of self-sacrifice.

That’s actually a good question.  Do I need the hope of a good afterlife to do good in the world?  No.  But I may need it to do good in a sacrificial manner.  I think of a post I read a while back by Rebecca Trotter, about a guy who took the blame for something illegal his employee did, since she had a family and he didn’t want the family to suffer.  He suffered for a long time as a result of this decision, and he later regretted it.  (Sorry, I can’t find the post.)  Where I am now—-as one who hopes there is a good afterlife but is not quite sure—-would I perform such an act of self-sacrifice?  No.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Michael Brown on the Hyper-Grace Movement

While I was looking at things yesterday for my dissertation, I was listening to a YouTube video.  Michael Brown was on Sid Roth’s show, criticizing the hyper-grace movement.  According to Dr. Brown, these are preachers who believe that Christians are saved by grace, so they don’t need to try to please God or live a holy, obedient life.

“Oh, James, why do you torture yourself?”, some of you may be asking (or not asking).  “You’ll just listen to this and feel that God does not love you because you have moral flaws.”  Well, I was bracing myself before I listened to the video.  And I seriously doubt that I am ready right now to listen to Dr. Brown’s hour-two hour sermons against the hyper-grace movement.  But some of what he said on Sid Roth’s show was not that bad.

Dr. Brown was criticizing those who claim that Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others does not apply today.  But Dr. Brown went on to say that, rather than excising that passage from the Bible, we should remember that God loves us—-that Jesus went to the cross for us.  Consequently, he says, he does not despair when he has a bad day.  And, if he were to die on a plane, he would not lack hope.

I appreciated his statements there because, even though he was excoriating the hyper-grace movement, he was at least manifesting sensitivity to where they might be coming from, and why people might choose to believe that sort of thing.  People are seeking security.  They want to feel that God loves them.  But they cannot find that security in their good works, for they are far from perfect, and even trying to be perfect is such toil.

That said, I’m tempted to listen to some of these hyper-grace preachers.  Just looking at their YouTube videos, they don’t seem to me to be anti-holiness.  Rather, they are saying that accepting God’s grace—-believing in God’s acceptance—-can encourage personal holiness, far more than focusing on one’s performance and trying to climb one’s way to God’s approval can.  (Of course, the hyper-grace preachers Dr. Brown was criticizing may not be the ones I am looking at.  I just googled “hyper-grace preachers” and saw what names turned up.)  That resonates with me, even though I also think that such an attitude can promote spiritual laziness and result in what we see today: Christians who are such jerks, and feel no compunction about that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Limit to Authenticity, and Letting Things Be

I’m not really in the mood to write today.  I read a lot of good things.  I reblogged some of them.  One article, I’d like to share, but I fear that it would offend a lot of people, and I am in no mood to qualify things, or to explain where I agree with the article, and where I disagree (or where I am supposed to disagree).  Maybe I’m a wimp.  Or maybe there is a limit on how authentic I as a blogger can be.

“Then why did you write today, James, if you’re not in the mood to write?”  Because this is a commitment I have made.  When my next blogging anniversary comes, I may pursue a different policy.  I may just focus on writing book reviews and my weekly quiet time readings through biblical books.  I’ve not been particularly comfortable blogging about my church’s Bible study.  The same goes for my church’s weekly service.  It has nothing to do with my level of enjoyment, for I actually enjoy the latter.  I just get tired of critiquing and analyzing, of asking what I believe and why, of probing whether or not I am a true Christian, of nitpicking Christianity, of asking where I agree or disagree with a sermon or song.  Often, I just want to let things and people be, without offering my comment.

Plus, I am a pretty shy person nowadays, even online.  I used to be able to be vulnerable online.  Nowadays, I’m reluctant to do so.  One reason is that I’m tired of writing the same stock posts about my problems with Christianity.  An internet troll once said that maybe my problems would not look as bad to me, if I did not write about them all the time.  Well, to each his or her own!  In this season, I’m inclined to agree with the troll, at least when it comes to myself!  (There I go, always having to qualify what I am saying, always feeling as if I am walking on eggshells!)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Write-Up: Homosexuality and Civilization

Louis Crompton.  Homosexuality and Civilization.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

I learned of this book from Kevin Brown’s Diglotting blog.  Kevin was discussing his summer reading plans, and he said the following about Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization: “Most thorough book I’ve seen on the topic (a little over 600 pages long). It covers how homosexuality was perceived in a variety of cultures, from ancient Greece and Rome to imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. It is pretty inexpensive too!”

I’m holding off on buying the book, but I did check it out from a local library and read it.  It is thorough.  It is also honest scholarship.  Crompton was a prominent figure in the field of gay studies.  Yet, Crompton is not afraid to disagree with other pro-gay scholars like John Boswell.  Whereas Boswell argued that Christianity was fairly tolerant towards homosexuality up to a certain point in time, Crompton paints historical Christianity as homophobic, even supportive of death for people who engaged in sodomy.  Crompton acknowledges that Christianity made positive contributions to the world, but he does not consider its stance on homosexuality to be one of them.

You may hear arguments by gay or pro-gay Christians that attempt to place the Bible in a positive light, to argue that the Bible does not really condemn homosexuality.  Crompton either questions those arguments, or the facts that he presents call the arguments into question.  Some argue that the ancient Israelites prohibited homosexual activity because they wanted Israel to have a large population in a world in which she was vulnerable; Crompton does not buy this, for he does not believe that is a sufficient explanation for the hostility towards homosexuality in Leviticus 20:13, which calls for death for same-sex activity, when there are peaceful ways to incentivize fertility.  Crompton does, however, speculate that the association of transexuality with pagan worship may have contributed to ancient Israel’s animus towards homosexuality.  Some note that Jesus did not criticize homosexuality.  Crompton himself finds this odd, for there were Gentile cities in Galilee, and same-sex activity probably occurred there, so Jesus was presumably aware of same-sex activity.  Still, Crompton concludes that Jesus probably absorbed the prejudices of his Jewish environment.  Some argue that Paul in Romans 1 was criticizing pederasty (love for boys) and had no conception of same-sex marriage or two people of the same sex entering into a lifelong union of commitment.  While Crompton talks at length about men’s love for boys in the ancient world, he also notes ancient examples of lifelong love and commitment between two people of the same sex.

Overall, what I saw as I read Crompton’s book was a history of cultural ambivalence towards homosexuality.  Some cultures were more open than others, but most of the cultures that Cromtpon discusses had pro- and anti-homosexual voices.  There were voices that regarded homosexuality as unnatural (since it did not produce children), as disruptive to family loyalty, and as responsible for ills that the culture was experiencing (due to divine displeasure, or other factors).  Ancient Greece was quite open, but Plato in his later work (Laws) was critical of homosexuality.  China was really open, too, but there were people who believed that homosexuality contradicted Confucian family values.  Japan was open but became more opposed to homosexuality with Western influence.  Within Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, there was stern opposition to homosexuality, and yet there were plenty of people, including high-ranking people, who engaged in sodomy.  One Christian conservative said to me that homosexuality was universally stigmatized until recently; that is far from true, for there were plenty of cultures that were open.  Still, many cultures had some voices that were critical of homosexuality.

The book also covered interesting details: odd attempts by thinkers to account for homosexuality (i.e., it’s due to not enough women being around), anti-sodomy laws in early America (Thomas Jefferson thought he was being more humane by advocating castration rather than death as the punishment), and such fascinating figures as the seventeenth century Queen Christina of Sweden, who was rather skeptical of religion and abdicated the throne when she converted to Catholicism, perhaps to be with a woman.  One can learn a lot about history from this book.

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