Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Da Vinci Fraud, by Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price.  The Da Vinci Fraud: Why the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.  Amherst: Prometheus, 2005.  See here to buy the book.

In The Da Vinci Fraud, atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price challenges the claims of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, while offering his own ideas.  Price is often associated with the Christ-mythicist school of thought, which denies that Jesus historically existed.  This is a marginal view within biblical scholarship.
Here are some items:

1.  As in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Price explores the possibility that earlier traditions of Christianity did not even believe that Jesus died and rose again.  Price refers to ancient stories, many of them dating to or after the first century C.E., that portray a person surviving crucifixion, a teacher believed to be dead appearing to his disciples and trying to convince them that he is not a ghost (cp. Luke 24:39), or a living person being prematurely buried in a tomb and kidnapped by robbers, resulting in the tomb being empty.  Price also refers to biblical passages.  In Hebrews 5:7, Jesus tearfully and fervently asks God to save him from death, and the text says that God heard Jesus on account of his reverence.  In John 19:33-34, Jesus is explicitly said to be dead from crucifixion, and a Roman soldier then drives his spear into Jesus.  For Price, this could be an addition to the text that is intended to make clear that Jesus was dead, against Christians who claimed that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.

I am hesitant to say that the stories that Price cites are thoroughly irrelevant to the New Testament stories of Jesus’ resurrection.  What the relationship is exactly, I do not know.  Some of the stories that Price mentions may have been drawing from the New Testament writings or traditions, but I am hesitant to say that all of those stories were influenced by Christianity, or had the motifs that they did on account of Christian influence.  Could the stories, or at least their motifs, have influenced New Testament writers, as Price contends?  Well, maybe.  If we are discussing the empty tomb in the New Testament Gospels, I believe that the motif of an empty tomb in other ancient traditions definitely deserves consideration.  At the same time, the New Testament stories seem to me to present Jesus as dying and rising again.  “Well, that is in the form that they are in now,” one can retort.  “Maybe the earlier form of the text was different and did not present Jesus dying and rising again.”  Perhaps, but could the New Testament Gospel writers have drawn from the ancient stories or motifs that Price cites, while still intending to present Jesus as dying and rising again?  Maybe they wanted to argue that what happened to Jesus was different from what happened in those other cases, or they found elements of the stories helpful as they fashioned their narrative, while not embracing them totally.

On Hebrews 5:7, in what manner did God hear Jesus after Jesus begged to be delivered from death?  Does that have to mean that God delivered Jesus from being crucified?  Could Jesus’ resurrection be God’s answer to that prayer?

2.  Price also believes that the stories about Jesus’ resurrection were influenced, in some way, by ancient myths about dying-and-rising gods.  (Does this contradict his point in #1, or does he believe that both ideas can co-exist, in some scenario?)  Price lists and describes some of these myths.  I agree with Christian apologists and conservative scholars that some of these stories do not exactly, or entirely, present a dying-and-rising god: some present reincarnation rather than resurrection, or a god who is not alive on earth for that long after being resurrected (Osiris is alive long enough to impregnate Isis, but then he goes to the netherworld).  But I am hesitant to dismiss that there was a belief in dying-and-rising gods in the ancient world, even though Price should have provided more documentation for the stories that he was relating.

Price addresses arguments from conservative critics regarding this issue.  Against those who say that stories about dying-and-rising gods came after the time of Christianity, Price states that even Christian apologists in ancient times had to address the argument that Christianity was similar to pagan myths, and they did so by saying that Satan was aping Christian themes before Jesus was on earth (Justin Martyr in the second century C.E. used this argument, but see here).  Against the conservative argument that staunch monotheists like the Jewish-Christians of the first century C.E. would not have borrowed from paganism, Price refers to the pagan influence on the Israelites and Jews up to the time of the Maccabees (which was in the second century B.C.E.).  While Price should have addressed whether Jews or Christians could have consciously borrowed from paganism in the first century C.E., I do not believe that one can seal historical Judaism and Christianity off from pagan influence, as if they were in a pure container.  Cross-cultural influence is a fact of life.

Price refers to what he believes are possible parallels between the Gospel stories and ancient myths: the resurrection of Attis (a Phrygian youth with romantic issues) was celebrated after three days, and Jesus rose after three days; the Pyramid Texts present someone lamenting that she cannot find a dead body, and Mary Magdalene lamented that she did not know where Jesus’ body was in John 20:13; and the gods’ resurrection often relates to the spring-time, which was when Jesus rose.  I doubt that these similarities mean that these myths necessarily influenced Christianity: three (or the third of someone or something) is a common motif in ancient and modern times, the contexts of these similarities were different (i.e., Osiris’ body parts were scattered throughout the world, which did not happen to Jesus), and the similarities could have been coincidental rather than indicating influence of one source on another.  I do believe that Jesus’ resurrection in the spring-time could have been significant, however.

Where Price goes with the dying-and-rising-gods argument is that he speculates that Mary Magdalene could have been like Isis, or the other goddesses (or women) who played a prominent role in the resurrection of the dying-and-rising god (or person).  Price initially believed that Mary Magdalene had apostolic status, or was head of a Christian community, for John 20 depicts her seeing the risen Lord, plus she seemed to be depicted as heading a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:2-3), which (according to Price) was rare in the ancient world.  But Price changed his mind on this in favor of the view that Mary Magdalene was mythological and was an Isis-like figure.  When did Mary resurrect Jesus?  Price believes that the story of the woman who anointed Jesus for burial (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:37-39; John 12:1-8) is relevant to this question: that it was initially within the context of Jesus’ resurrection, but was later projected back into the time of Jesus’ ministry, prior to his death.  Price also refers to Acts 17:18, in which Paul’s pagan detractors believe that Paul, in proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, is promoting strange gods.  How would they have reached this conclusion?  According to Price, they thought that Paul was proclaiming Jesus and the goddess Anastasis (which is Greek for resurrection).

This is all speculative, and yet it does strike me that Mark 14:9 makes a big deal about the woman anointing Jesus, saying that, wherever the Gospel is preached, what this woman has done will be mentioned in memory of her.  I also wonder why Paul’s pagan detractors concluded that Paul was proclaiming strange gods.

3.  Price argues that Jesus may have been a mythical figure who came to be historicized.  According to Price, this happened with other mythological figures, as well: Plutarch thought that Isis and Osiris were the first monarchs of Egypt, and Herodotus wondered when Hercules historically lived.

In reading about Christ-mythicism, something about this view has puzzled me.  Do Christ-mythicists believe that Jesus was initially believed to have been killed in the cosmic sphere, but that his crucifixion was later historicized as an event that took place on earth?  I have heard Christ-mythicists argue to this effect, and they appeal to pagan gods as parallels.  The thing is, my understanding is that many stories of pagan gods take place on earth, not in some cosmic realm.  The story of Osiris and Isis is set on earth, right?

How does Price deal with this?  Price refers to Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (a book that I have and would like to someday read, but it is boxed up), and also Paul Crouchoud.  Price says that Hercules and Asclepius were originally heavenly sun-gods, but they were later believed to have lived “fleshly lives on earth” (page 129).  On page 252, Price states that, according to Veyne, “most people did believe the gods and goddesses had existed, but in a twilight zone of history before recorded history began: ‘Once upon a time.'”  For Christ-mythicists, was Jesus initially believed to have been killed in a cosmic realm, or in the remote past on earth?

4.  Price talks about the New Testament canon.  He argues that Marcion first set forth a canon, and that so-called orthodox Christians added to it because they did not like Marcion’s ideas.  Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament, a god of justice, was a different god from the God of the New Testament, a god of love.  According to Price, orthodox Christians added to the New Testament canon books that were friendlier to their pro-Old Testament view, such as the Gospel of Matthew.  Price also believes that additions at some point were made to Paul’s writings to make him appear more orthodox, or pro-Torah.  Many scholars have narrated, by contrast, that Marcion edited things down to conform to his beliefs, rather than that orthodox Christians added things to Marcion’s canon.

This post is getting rather long, so I want to briefly interact with some of what Price says about the New Testament canon:

—-Price says that Pauline writings (minus the so-called “orthodox” additions that Price believes were made) were not from Paul, but from a Marcionite-Gnostic school.  I am not convinced by this.  Paul may have influenced Marcion, but I do not think that Marcion or the Gnostics composed Paul’s writings.  Paul’s writings have nothing about a sinister or obsessively just sub-god creating the world and giving Israel the law.  But the Pauline dichotomy between law and grace could have been embraced by the Marcionites or the Gnostics, for their own reasons.  Price may go into more detail about his views on this issue in his book on Paul, which I have not yet read.

—-Christian apologists, and also many mainstream scholars, maintain that the Gospels in our New Testament (at least the synoptic ones) are earlier than the extracanonical Gospels.  Price seems to me to agree with this, overall, at least in this book.  At the same time, he does not agree with those who would equate the New Testament writings with what came to be accepted as orthodox Christianity, for he refers to passages in John and Paul’s writings that strike him as rather docetist (i.e., Romans 8:3), the view that Jesus only appeared human rather than being human.  Romans 8:3’s statement that Jesus appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh does strike me as rather odd; at the same time, Paul also says that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4) and that Jesus was crucified, which seem to be at odds with docetism (and yet who says that a non-docetist could not absorb features of docetism?).  I do agree with Price, however, that the New Testament may manifest diverse Christologies, some of them at odds with what came to be orthodox.

—-Price refers to interesting and relevant considerations: Clement of Alexandria quoted, cited, or alluded to a number of non-canonical Christian texts, in addition to the canonical ones; some questioned the authorship of the Gospel of John, thinking it sounded too Gnostic; and even Christians who were later rejected as non-orthodox claimed to have learned their teaching from students of an apostle, including Paul and Peter.  That makes me wonder how I should deal with patristic claims that certain church fathers (i.e., Polycarp) were taught by apostles.  Should I reject those claims as made-up?  Should I accept that these fathers may have been taught by the apostles, yet went their own way, in areas, or took the apostle’s teachings in their own directions?  Should I believe that the church fathers are telling the truth about their apostolic connection, whereas the “Gnostic” Christians are lying about theirs, perhaps aping the church fathers?

—-Price refers to the criteria that church fathers used in deciding what was canonical.  He seems to identify with the criterion that a Gospel had to be widely used in order to be accepted as canonical, or at least he presented it as a reasonable criterion.  Wide and long use of a Gospel arguably means an earlier date, since there needed to be time for a Gospel to circulate.  Plus, “The fewer quarters of the church in which it was known, the greater the likelihood of its being a recent forgery. (‘Why didn’t we hear about this ‘Gospel according to Wally’ till now?  I smell a rat!’)” (page 162).  Price believes that the criterion that a Gospel had to be written by an apostle or student of an apostle to be more dubious, however, for could not one simply attribute a Gospel to an apostle, whether that apostle wrote it or not?  Christian apologists and conservative scholars have asked why, if this were the case, church fathers would attribute Gospels to Mark or Luke, who were not even apostles, rather than attributing them to more famous apostles.  Price’s answer is that Matthew’s Gospel was more widely known and respected than the Gospels of Mark and Luke were, so the latter two Gospels were attributed to people who were not apostles, but rather students of apostles.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Compassion As an Anecdote?

The man who gave the sermon this morning was talking about Mark 7:1-15.  In that passage, Jesus was saying that “the things that come out are what defile” (NRSV).  The preacher was interpreting this to mean that, when we act on the corrupt and selfish things that are inside of us (making them “things that come out”), we become separated from God (defilement), presumably until we repent and receive forgiveness.  The preacher seemed to be presenting compassion as an anecdote to our struggle with vice.  The preacher noted that Jesus in the passage was compassionate towards the dishonored and deprived parents of some of the Pharisees, and he also referred to other passages in which Jesus feels and acts on compassion.  The preacher said that, unlike us, Jesus was not proud as a result of his compassion, and that we should not be proud either because compassion is something that God has placed inside of us.

What the preacher said reminded me of Galatians 5:16.  In the KJV, it reads, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”  Over a decade ago, another preacher told me after citing this passage, “You can’t do both.”  His point was that, by walking according to the Spirit and its fruit (i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.), we are going in the opposite direction of the works of the flesh (i.e., hatred, sexual immorality, etc.).  It’s like cultivating and walking in what is good is an anecdote to being bad, for both are oriented in opposite directions.

As I look at the NRSV and the Greek of Galatians 5:16, I am a bit skeptical that this is what the passage is saying.  The NRSV has, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”  This seems to treat Galatians 5:16 as a two-fold command rather than viewing walking in the Spirit as an anecdote to walking in the flesh: walk in the Spirit, and don’t gratify the flesh.  Obey both commands.  In the Greek, the part about not walking in the flesh is in the subjunctive: “may you not fulfill desire of flesh.”  To me, that seems to coincide more with what the NRSV has.  I may be forgetting some Greek rule, though, so I am open to correction.

Do I believe that cultivating compassion can serve as an anecdote to acting on the flesh?  On some level, I do.  Compassion humanizes people and seeks to identify with them.  If I am compassionate towards someone I hate, that lessens my hatred.  If I humanize a woman after whom I lust, that tempers, or at least counter-balances, my lust.  I still have questions, though.  For example, is sexually desiring a woman, or even engaging in pre-marital sex, necessarily the opposite of love?  It can be, but is it in every case?  Both Jesus in Mark 7 and Paul in Galatians 5 list sexual immorality among the vices, however.

I liked what the preacher said about compassion being the voice of God within us.  I am one who wants to hear from God.  Well, maybe God is speaking to me when I feel an urge to be compassionate.  I was thinking of a colleague whom I cannot stand, and, to my surprise, I was actually happy that he had a job, for I remembered listening to him stress out about employment prospects.  Whenever I feel this way, I ask myself, “Is that compassion genuine?  Am I really happy for this ass?”  I then think, “Why stress out over that question?  Just cultivate compassion!  Any ounce of compassion that is within me is worth cultivating.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

Steve Hays Contra Hector Avalos: Were the Disciples Deadbeat Dads?

Leaning Towards Darth Hillary?

I haven’t written a whole lot about the 2016 Presidential election.  This is unlike me, since I wrote a lot about the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections when they were going on.

In this post, I would like to talk about Hillary.  Here are some thoughts.
  1.  I was leaning towards voting for Bernie Sanders, and that may be what I end up doing.  I do think it’s cool that he’s drawing huge crowds and, at the moment at least, is posing a significant challenge to Hillary.  That makes the election interesting.  But, one night, I was flipping through channels.  I came to C-Span, and it was showing a town hall meeting in which Hillary was answering questions from the audience.  Hillary really impressed me.  Someone asked her about Medicare and what its policy should be towards people who take care of their elderly parents at home, and Hillary addressed that question intelligently, with bullet points, showing that she had thought about the issue.  A couple of leftist young people were trying to disrupt the town hall because they thought that Hillary did not go far enough on climate change, and Hillary took control of the meeting, expressed understanding towards their position, and said, logically, that we cannot simply stop using carbon-based fuels cold turkey, for so much of the economy depends on them.  She is still for addressing the problem of climate change, however.
  2. Contrast how Hillary handled that Townhall with how Bernie Sanders handled the disruption at his event.  Bernie just let those Black Lives Matters activists take over his rally!  He just stood there!  At least that’s my understanding of what happened.  Sure, he should have let them have their say, but he also should have been present, somehow.  He should have gone to the microphone and said something, either responding to what they said, or entering into a dialogue with them, or expressing sympathy for their concerns.  Hillary, on the other hand, had a dialogue with Black Lives Matters activists.
  3. In recent polls, Hillary does not get high marks for trustworthiness.  Do I trust Hillary?  Well, it depends on what I’m trusting her for.  Do I see her as thoroughly honest, ethical, transparent, and lovable?  No.  She is shady.  She stretches the truth.  I have heard that she can be mean.  I have called her “Darth Hillary.”  And, while she is an intelligent, sophisticated woman, that time when she left the White House with White House silverware seemed a bit white-trashy to me.  But I also believe that she has a social conscience and has manifested that during her years as a lawyer, as First Lady, and in public service.  I think that there is a part of her that cares for the vulnerable.  Some of that may be for show, but some of it, I suspect, is real.
  4. One concern that I have about her being President is that her Administration will probably have scandals, and that will distract her and the government from the business of governing, unless she can find some way to surmount them.  She has a scandal right now.  What makes us think that she won’t as President?
  5. What I like about primaries is that they give me an opportunity to vote for whom I want—-for the candidate who best represents my beliefs, or whom I like the most—-whether that person has a shot in hell or not.  I voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, mainly because I liked how he stood up to Rudy Giuliani and did not back down when Giuliani was getting on his sanctimonious 9/11 high horse.  That said, I am hesitant to vote for Hillary in the primary because I suspect that she will be the Democratic candidate in the general election, and I will probably vote for her then.  (I do not know what role Biden will play in this election.)  Part of me wants to do something different in the primaries.  So I am wondering if I should vote for Bernie Sanders, or one of the Republicans I like, such as John Kasich.  Or maybe I can continue my Paulite tradition and vote for Rand—-I like some of what he says, and some of what he says I find offensive.  The thing is, right now at least, Hillary is the candidate I like the most.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Left Behind (2014); Dear Mr. Watterson

I watched the 2014 Left Behind movie, starring Nicholas Cage.  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  I did not care for the movie.  Now, you may be thinking to yourself that I am the sort of person who would not like the movie—-progressive, an academic wannabe.  But that would be a false conclusion.  I enjoyed the first two Left Behind books.  I loved the audio series.  I liked the second movie produced by Cloud Ten.  I can find myself enjoying Christian apocalyptic thrillers, such as Tribulation.  But I did not care for the 2014 Left Behind movie.
  2. The first thirty minutes were actually pretty good.  Chloe Steele and Buck Williams were expressing their doubts about the existence of God, mostly focusing on the problem of evil.  Rayford Steele was justifying his wife’s religious conversion to his daughter, Chloe, who thought that her mom had gone off the deep end.  There was not much religious or philosophical substance afterwards, though.  There was a lot of focus on landing the plane.  I found that to be boring.
  3.  The actress who played Hattie was nice to look at.
  4. Until they were raptured, there was nothing really that stood out to me about the Christians.  They were not necessarily nicer than the non-believers who got left behind.  They were nice, but even some of the non-believers were good people who tried to help others.  That may be a point that the movie was trying to make: salvation is not about being a good person, but is about receiving God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  Nowadays, though, my theology and religious/spiritual life do interrelate with the question of what type of person I should be; at the same time, I am still a believer in humbly accepting God’s free grace.
  5. One thought that occurred to me as I watched this movie was: “Is this true?”  Of course, that is the question that the makers of the movie want the viewers to ask themselves.   I tried to recall to my mind the arguments for and against Christian apologetics and historical criticism of the Bible, and the arguments for and against the pretribulational rapture.  I recoiled from the thought of returning to fundamentalism, feeling that, with all of my flaws, I am still in a better place now than I was then.  In the end, I recalled a post that I wrote a while back about being ready for the second coming of Christ, and I settled on what I wrote there.  I believe that I have a connection with God, even if I do not dismiss atheist or unorthodox books as from the devil, or try to pressure or manipulate people into accepting evangelical Christianity.
This post was not as long as I expected it to be, so allow me to comment on something else that I watched that night.  It was a documentary about Bill Watterson, the creator of the famous and popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  It was called Dear Mr. Watterson.

  1.  I was never much of a Calvin and Hobbes person.  I read it, but I liked Peanuts and Garfield a lot better.  Still, I was interested in seeing this documentary, for I enjoy comics, and it’s interesting to hear the story of someone who succeeded and made a difference in his profession.
  2. Someone who was interviewed said that he moved to a new neighborhood and did not know anybody, and reading Calvin and Hobbes gave him an anchor during that time.  It was something that he looked forward to and enjoyed.  I could identify with him there because there have been things that have helped me through periods of alienation.
  3. Bill Watterson was said to be reclusive and a bit of a loner.  Someone in the documentary said that, when Watterson could have been out there socializing, he instead stayed home and was perfecting his craft.  I hope that I, as a reclusive person, can succeed in my own way.  I also believe in trying to improve my social skills, but I try not to beat up on myself if I fall short.
  4. Bill Watterson was unusual in the sense that he did not allow Calvin and Hobbes to be licensed.  Other cartoonists did, which is why you see Garfield or Snoopy on lunchboxes, or advertisements, or as dolls.  Watterson, however, believed that this sort of commercialization compromised the craft.  It was interesting to watch Charles Schultz’s wife defending her husband’s decision to license Peanuts—-she said that he saw it as an extension of his art.  The documentary offered pros and cons about this issue.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Write-Up: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

I watched Ridley Scott’s 2014 movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a few nights ago.  Here are some thoughts:

  1.  The movie was controversial among many conservative Christians because it implied that the plagues on Egypt could have been explained naturally, without recourse to the supernatural (see, for example, Al Mohler’s critique here).  Or at least there is ambiguity about whether the God of Israel is the one causing the plagues, or the plagues are just nature taking its course.  The exception to this would be the final plague, the death of the firstborn: I can think of no natural explanation for the Egyptian firstborn dying in a single night, while the Israelite firstborn who had blood on their doors lived.  Overall, though, one could look at the plagues and conclude that they had a natural explanation, as one of the Pharaoh’s advisers did.  For one, as more than one critic has pointed out, we do not know if Moses in the movie was truly interacting with God, or if he was simply hallucinating after being hit in the head.  Second, the plagues start with crocodiles attacking one another, which leads to blood in the Nile, which leads to frogs coming ashore.  The frogs die, and flies come.  Flies spread disease.  Right when Egypt conceivably cannot get any lower, a hailstorm and locusts come.  These are natural events.  Third, the crossing of the Red Sea is not like it is in most Moses movies, with one wall of water on one side, another wall of water on the other side, and a path of dry ground in the middle.  Rather, what happens is that the water gets lower, and that allows the Israelites to cross.
  2. What do I, as a believer in God, think about this?  I like it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I also like Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass, and makes it obvious to arrogant Egypt that the God of Israel is the one kicking Egypt’s ass (I will discuss this further below).  But I personally identified with Ridley Scott’s take on the story: that the God of Israel may be acting, yet there are other ways to explain or interpret what is going on.  That is the situation in which I often find myself: I believe that God is at work in my life, but I can still look at my life and account for events without appealing to God as an explanation.  I still prefer to have faith, though.  I was particularly moved by the scene in which the Israelites were standing on the shores of the Red Sea, wondering what to do next, and Moses was encouraging them to have faith and cross.  What is faith without there being at least some doubt?
  3. There is a question that occurs in my mind, though: Would the Egyptians historically have been open to a naturalistic explanation for the plagues?  Even Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments portrayed Raamses as a bit of a naturalist, at least in one scene: Yul Brynner’s Raamses was saying that the bloody water was caused by clay from the mountains, that Moses and the Egyptian priest fashioned gods to prey on the fears of men, and that the plagues were events that happened of themselves.  Maybe there were occasions when the Egyptians could have had naturalistic thoughts, but they did, overall, have a supernaturalist worldview.  They believed that Egypt had gods, and that even the Pharaoh was a god, or a manifestation of a god.  I can even picture them believing that other people-groups had gods, for nations in the ancient Near East generally did acknowledge the existence of other nations’ gods.  If the Exodus had occurred, how would the Egyptians have accounted for the plagues?  It would be a theological problem for them, I’m sure, for the Pharaoh, a god, was not successfully upholding the natural order and prosperity of his kingdom, and the gods of Egypt were not any help, either.  Maybe the Egyptians could conclude that their gods were mad at them, for some reason—-even though, here, this view could conceivably collapse when all of their attempts to appease their gods were not working.  Or perhaps the Egyptians could have concluded that the god of the Israelites was responsible for the damage—-but the theological problem for the Egyptians here would be that this would arguably make the god of the Israelites more powerful than their own gods.
  4.  A provocative scene is when Moses is talking with God (or God’s messenger), a little boy), and Moses expresses sadness over the plagues, since Moses grew up with the Egyptians.  God asks Moses to consider the Israelites, who were oppressed by the Egyptians for hundreds of years, and God expresses disappointment that Moses does not yet consider the Israelites to be his people.  Moses asks God if the plagues are a matter of revenge, and God responds that the Pharaohs in Egypt think that they are gods, when they are merely flesh and blood.  God wants them to bow down to him in pain, begging for it to stop!  This was the first time that God raised his voice or appeared angry, for, throughout the movie, God was mostly calm and level-headed.
  5. What do I think about that?  The Exodus story gives a lot of people problems.  This is understandable, for innocent Egyptians died as a result of the plagues.  Many non-believers put the Exodus story in the same category as God’s command to slaughter the Canaanite children, thinking that God appears barbaric, bloodthirsty, and unjust.  They may look at my remark above about enjoying Moses movies in which God kicks Egypt’s ass and think that I am psychotic.  I can understand their perspective, but allow me to offer a rationale for my own.  Egypt was arrogant.  Its government believed that it had the authority over people’s life and death.  In the movie, the Pharaoh publicly put one Israelite family to death each day until the Israelites turned Moses in, and the Pharaoh later planned to slaughter every Israelite firstborn.  And this Pharaoh had the audacity in the movie to accuse Moses’ God of being cruel and unjust!  I do enjoy seeing the arrogant humbled, the oppressors put in their place, the cruel punished.  What about the innocent Egyptians?  Were there truly innocent Egyptians?  Perhaps even ordinary Egyptians carried with them that attitude of arrogance and contempt for the oppressed.  I know that I have a certain arrogance about being an American, a citizen of the most powerful country on the face of the earth!  I do not like that arrogance, but it is there.  There is more that I can say about this issue: about how private Egyptian citizens may have participated in killing Israelite newborns (Exodus 1:22—-I attribute this observation to Rashi), and how one can even make the case that God loved the Egyptians (see Exodus 9:18-21—-I attribute this observation to Tim Keller; see also this post).
  6. Christian Bale, who played Moses in the movie, reportedly called Moses barbaric.  I admired Moses in Ridley Scott’s movie, though.  Moses as part of the court in Egypt discouraged the Pharaoh from killing Israelites, saying that this would make the Israelites hate the Egyptians and want to rebel against them.  Moses was curious about what the Israelites believed.  Moses was a humble man: when he offered Raamses strategic battle advice and Raamses rebuffed him, Moses respected and deferred to Raamses’ authority.  When Dathan was challenging Moses’ authority at the Red Sea, Moses did not get defensive, but Moses responded humbly and reasonably.  Moses was humble, but humble in a strong sort of way.
  7. During the scene about the final plague, people with Israelite names are dying, even though Moses would later tell Pharaoh that not a single Israelite firstborn died.  How do I know that those people who died had Israelite names?  Because “Yah”—-the name of the God of Israel—-was in those names.  Of course, more than one Moses movie has made this mistake.  The name “Bithia,” the name of Moses’ Egyptian adoptive mother, is Hebrew, for it has “Yah” in it, yet more than one Moses movie depicts the Egyptians calling her “Bithiah” without batting an eye.  This problem should be redressed in future Moses movies, for it does make the movies appear less authentic.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Write-Up: Against Calvinism, by Roger Olson

Roger E. Olson.  Against Calvinism.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

Roger Olson is an Arminian theologian.  I decided to read his Against Calvinism after I had read another book that was supportive of Calvinism.  I was curious about how an Arminian like Olson would explain the biblical passages that Calvinists cite in favor of Calvinism.  I also wondered what exactly Arminians’ Scriptural basis was for some of their concepts, such as prevenient grace.

Before I will list my thoughts, allow me to offer a definition of Calvinism.  I define Calvinism as the belief that that God chose who would be saved before the foundation of the world, that Christ died to pay the penalty of sin for the chosen ones, and that God unilaterally changes the hearts of the chosen so that they believe in Christ and live a holy life.  Arminianism is a bit more difficult and complex for me to define in a sentence, but hopefully those reading this post who are unfamiliar with it will get an idea of what it is about in the following discussion.

That said, here are my thoughts about Against Calvinism:

  1.  In looking for a book to read about Arminianism, I was trying to decide between Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism, and Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology.  You know which one I picked, since I am writing this blog post about it!  But I think that I picked the wrong one.  Although the book that I selected is entitled Against Calvinism, my impression as I looked at the Table of Contents was that it would also offer a constructive explanation and Scriptural defense of what Arminianism was about.  To give you a taste of what I am talking about, one of the chapters is entitled “Yes to God’s Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism.”  There are other chapters in the book that are like that: they affirm a concept, but they reject the Calvinist understanding of it.  That sounds partly constructive to me.  The thing is, Olson did not go into much depth on what Arminianism was, and, for that sort of discussion, he referred readers to his book, Arminian Theology.   So I will be reading Arminian Theology sometime in the future.  It may take a while for me to get to it, though, since I have a bunch of review books on my plate to read!  You may be wondering why I turned Arminian Theology down when I was deciding between it and Against Calvinism.  It just seemed to me that Arminian Theology would be responding to Calvinist misunderstandings of Arminianism: Olson would argue, for example, that Arminians do not believe that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves, but that God’s grace is necessary to make it possible for people to believe in Jesus.  But I already knew that about Arminians!  I was looking for a Scriptural defense of Arminianism, and an Arminian interpretation of passages that Calvinists like to cite.  But maybe there is more to Arminian Theology than I have assumed.
  2. Against Calvinism did have gems in it, and I will get into that as this blog post progresses.  There were times, though, when I was bored with the book, and the reason was that Olson was essentially making the same objections against Calvinism that I could come up with: that the logical consequences of Calvinism make God responsible for evil, or humans less responsible for their sins (since God contributes to human sin by withholding God’s grace).  Olson’s book can still be a valuable resource to those who are interested in Calvinism, however, because he interacts with what Calvinists have actually said.  Calvinists often complain that they are misunderstood and that their positions are caricatured.  Olson is clear that most Calvinists do not believe that God is the author of sin or that people are not responsible for their sins, but he does maintain that such conclusions are the logical outcome of Calvinist positions.
  3. The book talked about the diversity of Reformed Theology.  Prior to reading this book, I simply equated Reformed Theology with Calvinism.  Olson, however, shows that things are not that simple.  I was confused after reading Olson’s discussion about this topic, for I wondered what exactly made a person a Reformed Christian.  Olson was talking about Reformed Christians who did not believe that God predestined who would be saved and lost.  Well, if they do not believe that, in what sense are they Reformed Christians, and what is the definition of a Reformed Christian, anyway?  The impression that I got in reading Olson is that people are Reformed Christians if they are part of a church that is from that tradition, if they believe in God’s sovereignty (even if they do not go as far as certain Calvinists do in asserting that God plans everything out), and if they interact with Calvinist beliefs (i.e., TULIP).
  4. What particularly intrigued me in reading this book was Olson’s description of how Calvinists wrestle with their own positions.  In the Bible, I see different concepts: that God desires people’s repentance and is disappointed and saddened when they do not repent, and yet that God can play some role in softening and hardening people’s hearts.  How can God be saddened when people do not repent, when God arguably plays a role in people’s failure to repent (not that Olson or Arminians would agree with the latter, but I am setting up a Calvinist dilemma)?  Many Calvinists say that God has different kinds of wills.  That has long struck me as rather silly, for we are dealing with a single being, God, and how can a single being have contradictory wills (without having a split personality, that is)?  Some Calvinists, however, maintain that God has complex motives: God may be saddened when people do not repent, and yet God arranges for them not to repent for his own glory.  God wants to demonstrate God’s justice against sin (a la Romans 9:22-23, depending on how one interprets that passage).  God wants something, but God subordinates that desire to a more important desire.  Olson is not convinced, and I, too, question whether this solves the problem of God having different wills, but I did find such Calvinist attempts to be intriguing, for they attempt to explain how God having contradictory wills could fit into a single, coherent divine personality.
  5. According to Olson, some Calvinists have also wrestled with the Calvinist concept of unconditional election, the belief that God chose who would be saved, without considering the types of people the elect would be.  Some Calvinists do not want to believe that God randomly and arbitrarily picked people, like God’s choice was a lottery, for they believe that God picked whom he picked for a reason.  Olson says that their stance is inconsistent with unconditional election, and yet I wondered: Why not?  Granted, Calvinists do not want to say that God selected those whom he knew would be good people, or whom he knew would believe, for the view of Calvinists is that God saves people by grace, not on account of anything meritorious within them.  Still, does that necessarily mean that God did not choose whom he chose for a reason?  God may choose to save a notorious criminal, for example, because that person’s changed life could give him glory.
  6. This brings me to another question: Should Christians have to choose between Calvinism and Arminianism?  I am not advocating for “Calminianism,” for I tend to agree with critics of that who say that Calvinism and Arminianism have concepts that are mutually contradictory and cannot be logically reconciled with one another (though I have to admit that I have yet to read Calminian books!).  What I am suggesting is that God may work in different ways in different situations.  Maybe there are situations in which God might choose to harden a sinner, or to bend a person’s will towards him.  Does that mean that we have to embrace some full-fledged scenario that says that God decided who would be saved and damned before the foundation of the universe, and that God gave and withheld grace on the basis of that decree, no ifs, ands, or buts?  Not necessarily, I don’t think.
  7. Olson does occasionally present Arminian or revisionist Reformed understandings of biblical passages that Calvinists like to cite.  He refers to the view that Romans 9-11 is about the mission of Israel and the church rather than God picking who would be saved and lost.  Acts 2:23 says that the Jewish leaders killed Jesus by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (to draw from the KJV’s language), and Olson interprets that to mean, not that God caused the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, but rather that God knew that the Jewish leaders were the sorts of people who would kill Jesus, and God arranged things with that in mind.  Olson referred to a Calvinist who was quoting (albeit without citation) Job 14:5, in which Job affirms that God has determined the days (lifespan) of man.  Olson does not offer an alternative interpretation to the Calvinist’s determinist reading of that passage, but perhaps one could say that Job’s speeches are not divinely-inspired.  On Acts 2:23, I would say that I find Olson’s interpretation to be reasonable.  On Romans 9-11, however, I am more conflicted.  I believe that the passage does relate, in some way, to salvation and not just mission, for the issue of salvation comes up, particularly in Romans 10.  Moreover, Paul could be applying how he believes that God generally operates (i.e., by grace, and by election) to the specific issue of Israel and the Gentiles.  At the same time, the end of the story in Romans 9-11 is about how many non-believing Jews, whom God has hardened, will one day be saved.  Romans 9-11 has a happy ending, which differs from the dismal picture that Calvinism presents.
  8.   I can write a lot more items, but this will be the last one, in terms of this post.  I am unclear about what prevenient grace is, exactly.  There are things that I find convincing and unconvincing about Calvinism and Arminianism.  What I find convincing about Arminianism is that there are biblical passages that suggest (as I read them) that God wants to save everyone, and that God is saddened or angry when people do not repent.  What I find convincing about Calvinism is that there are biblical passages that seem to indicate that God plays a significant role in turning people’s hearts toward him: in opening their eyes, in circumcising their hearts, in giving them hearts that are yielded to him and his law, in transforming them into the kinds of people who understand spiritual things.  I do not entirely understand how Arminians account for the latter set of passages.  Unlike Calvinists, they believe that God’s grace is resistible, but that God attempts to persuades people and makes it possible through his grace for depraved sinners to accept or reject him (whereas, without this grace, they would automatically reject him).  That is prevenient grace.  But how does that work?  Does everyone have it to the same degree?  If so, then why are people in different places spiritually, with some giving thought to spiritual matters, and others giving little if any thought to them (I think of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:3-9 and parallels)?  If not everyone has prevenient grace to the same degree, then how is Arminianism better than Calvinism, if God gives some people spiritual privileges that God does not give to others?  Does everyone automatically have prevenient grace by virtue of being in the human race, or does it occur specifically when God knocks on the door of certain people’s hearts and tries to woo them (say, at a revival meeting), even though there is the possibility that they can say no?  If the latter is the case, again, how is Arminianiam better than Calvinism, if God is choosing whom to woo?  Does prevenient grace entail being emotionally drawn to God, of having warm feelings towards God?  If so, then how could a person say “no” to God in that sort of emotional state?  I think that the Calvinist question of why we prefer what we prefer—-the observation that we have preferences that we did not ask for—-is an excellent point that deserves consideration, even if Olson is correct about the unattractive ramifications of it (i.e., that we are technically not responsible for our own choices).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mark 7:24-20: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

The sermon at church this morning was entitled “Humility: The Ultimate Faith Additive.”

The text for the sermon was Mark 7:24-30.  In this text, Jesus went to the region of Tyre, and he found a house there where he could stay.  According to the text, Jesus did not want anyone to know he was there.  But a Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter was demon-possessed, heard that Jesus was there.  She came to him, bowed at his feet, and asked Jesus to cast the demon from her daughter.  Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  The woman then said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus responded, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  The woman went home, and her daughter was in bed.  The demon had left her.

(In my description of the story above, I draw some from the language of the New Revised Standard Version.)

The person preaching to us this morning made a variety of points about this story.  She noted that this story occurs after Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees had questioned Jesus because his disciples were eating without ritually washing their hands, and Jesus criticized the Pharisees, then taught his slow-to-understand disciples that true defilement is within human beings.  According to the preacher this morning, the reason that Jesus in Mark 7:24-30 was in Tyre and did not want anyone to find him was that he was frustrated.  She said that this was Jesus’ “human side.”  Jesus and the person in whose house he was staying probably did not want that Syro-Phoenician woman bothering them, the preacher said, but the Syro-Phoenician woman was not going away: she wanted Jesus to heal her daughter.  But she was humble about it.  She did not get defensive when Jesus compared her to a dog.  And her stance towards Jesus was a humble stance.  The preacher said that Jesus is an additive that makes a difference in a person’s life, and that humility is an additive to one’s faith in Jesus that makes a difference.

I have a variety of thoughts.
  1.  I have had issues with humility and worship as of late.  In God’s eyes, according to my understanding, it is not enough for us to respect God as superior to us; no, we have to love, worship, and adore him.  But I have difficulty loving and worshiping God, if he is a certain way.  As usual, I have been struggling with those passages in which Jesus says that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:25-26).  I hate those passages (assuming my understanding of them is correct).  They seem to me to condition God’s forgiveness and acceptance on things that are difficult to do, things that few, if any, people do perfectly.  I have a hard time worshiping God and calling him a God of lavish love and grace, if that is the way that he is.  Plus, I am repulsed by the idea of groveling before God.  “Oh please, master God, disregard my doubts.  Don’t beat me or my loved ones!  Bring good things to my life!  I promise I won’t have bad thoughts about you!”  Not a very attractive picture, is it?
  2. Still, I do respect the Syro-Phoenician woman.  She loved her daughter, and she was willing to suffer rejection and indignity so that her daughter might be healed.  That is a parent’s love!  I do not see much indication in the text that this woman loved Jesus.  She loved her daughter.
  3. I may not like grovelling, thinking that such a stance is beneath me.  There have been times, though, when I have felt dependence on God.  I look within myself and see depravity, and I realize that I depend on God to be good.  I am afraid, and I throw myself on God’s love and mercy.  I do not look at those times negatively.  They are times when I magnify God and feel his strength and support.  I can also identify with feeling a need for Jesus—-for himself, and also for the peace and joy that he can bring—-and tenaciously praying to him, even when he seems to be silent.  In this sense, I respect the Syro-Phoenician woman.
  4. I do not entirely understand Jesus’ rationale for turning the woman down.  As the preacher said this morning, Jesus’ mission at this time was to Israel, and this woman was not an Israelite.  I guess my struggle is with Jesus’ analogy, as Jesus compares his miracles of healing with the children’s food.  Jesus says that it is not fitting for him to take the children’s food and to give it to dogs.  The children represent the Israelites, while the dogs represent the Gentiles.  But is there not enough food to go around, even for the so-called dogs?  It is not as if Jesus only has so many miracles to perform, for Jesus can perform miracles whenever he wants (well, then again, there is that troublesome Mark 6:5 passage, which says that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth on account of the lack of faith there).  Plus, it is not as if Jesus at this particular time was feeding the children: Jesus ran away from Israel to go to Tyre and get away from the children.  I may be asking the wrong questions, for Jesus’ point was probably that his blessings at this point were for Israel, so that Israel would repent and take her role in God’s plan; they were not for everybody, at that stage.  To give the blessings to others would undermine or compromise Jesus’ mission at that stage, he may have thought.
  5. The preacher’s point about Jesus making a difference in a person’s life resonated with me.  I recently read Robert Price’s Reason-Driven Life, which was a response to evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life.  Price was critiquing Warren’s suggestions on how Christians can share their faith, for Price seemed to regard that as a canned approach.  One of Warren’s suggestions was that Christians share the difference that Jesus makes in their life.  I find this suggestion to be helpful.  What difference does Jesus make in my life?  I have someone to go to with my problems.  I have someone who helps me to be and to do good.  I think that every Christian should ask himself or herself: What difference does Jesus make in my life?  That is not necessarily canned, for it can lead to a more authentic faith.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

(Rambling)Book Write-Up: Only a Theory, by Kenneth R. Miller

Kenneth R. Miller.  Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.  New York: Viking, 2008.  See here to buy the book.

Kenneth Miller teaches biology at Brown University, and he has been a prominent figure in debates about evolution and Intelligent Design.  I first heard of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I was taking a class about religion and American education, and, for my final project, I decided to create a curriculum that would teach about evolution and Intelligent Design.  I talked with my professor, and one of the sources that she recommended to me was Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, in which Miller attempts to reconcile evolution with a theistic belief system (or such is my understanding of his goal in that book).  I did not read the entirety of Finding Darwin’s God, but I found what I did read of it to be entertaining, lucid, and informative.  Miller told personal stories, and he also explained how things in nature that ID proponents claim needed a designer could have had a natural cause.  I also read a debate between Miller and Phillip Johnson about evolution, and I thought that Miller made the stronger case for his position.
I saw Only a Theory in the library in 2009, but I did not check it out at that time.  It still caught my attention and stayed in my mind, though.  I recently decided to read the book because I read a book not long ago that was against evolution, and I was curious to learn more about the evidence for evolution.

Here are some thoughts about Only a Theory.  My treatment of this book is not comprehensive, but I talk about what particularly interested me.  You’ll probably pick up really quickly that I am not a scientist, but I am interacting with the book from where I am sitting, as I do with a number of books.
  1.  Miller talks about the many species of horses in the fossil record, and he wonders how ID would account for them.  He says that ID would posit that the designer designed each species separately.  I wondered if that was an accurate representation of the ID position.  I remember watching William Dempski on C-Span a while back, and I vaguely recall him expressing an openness to macroevolution, or at least saying that macroevolution is not inconsistent with Intelligent Design.  I had read that Michael Behe believed in macroevolution and acknowledged that species had a common descent (see here).  My impression was that they may accept macroevolution, but that they did not think that evolution, chance, and natural causes by themselves were sufficient to account for the existence and complexity of life, implying that there had to be some designer starting the process, guiding it, or tinkering with it.  On the other hand, I had also read ID-proponents who questioned evolution.  Phillip Johnson wrote a book entitled Darwin on Trial, and I recalled him saying in his debate with Miller that a lot of mutations are harmful, a common creationist argument that I have heard against evolution.  Years ago in a class, I read an essay by David Berlinski in Commentary Magazine, and Berlinski seemed to endorse Genesis 1’s picture of God creating different kinds of animals separately.  Does Intelligent Design believe in evolution or not?  I did a search on this yesterday, and I found a Q and A page of the Discovery Institute, which supports Intelligent Design.  On the one hand, the article says, “If one simply means [by evolution] ‘change over time,’ or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory.”  On the other hand, the article later takes potshots at evolution.
  2. Miller, a good teacher, tells personal stories to set the stage for his scientific explanations.  I think of the stories about the mousetrap, and the two students who cheated.  Let’s start with the mousetrap.  Michael Behe, a scientist who advocates for Intelligent Design, likens certain aspects of nature to a mousetrap: they need all of their parts simultaneously in order to work, and thus it makes more sense to believe that a designer designed them whole, than to say that they evolved on their own through unworkable stages.  Miller, however, tells his own story about a mousetrap: back when he was a high school student in study hall, some students would use parts of a mousetrap to launch spitballs at students in the balcony.  In this situation, the mousetrap did not need all of its parts simultaneously to perform some function.  Behe believes that something similar is going on with some of the aspects of nature that ID proponents appeal to.  I only vaguely understand what Miller is getting at here.  Let me use “mousetrap” as a code-word for these aspects of nature: Is Miller suggesting that a mousetrap originally had only two parts but was used for another function besides catching mice, but that it later evolved that third part that made it able to catch mice?  But what if “catching mice” is, in some cases, a code-term for supporting life, or making life possible?  Does Behe’s point remain on the table?  I hope that I am clear in where my problem lies.
  3. Onto Miller’s story about the two cheating students!  Miller tells a story about when he caught two of his students cheating on an exam, as one student was looking at the essay of the other.  Miller called the two students into his office, and they said that they studied together, and that was why their essays were similar.  Miller responded that the reason that he thinks they were cheating was that both essays made the same spelling mistakes—-out of all of the spelling mistakes that could be made, why do these essays make the same particular spelling mistakes?  The students admitted defeat!  Miller compares this with certain features of nature.  We share with the primates that are our closest evolutionary relatives some “mistakes,” if you will.  We and these primates need vitamin C, for example, whereas a number of other creatures have bodies that do not need vitamin C.  One can respond, “Well, God just decided to make us and these primates with bodies that needed vitamin C!”  Miller finds that problematic, however, and the reason is that we and the primates do have that same feature that the animals that do not need vitamin C have, but it is broken within us and those primates.  Why would a designer design us this way?  For Miller, evolution explains this, and similar, phenomena.  I found this part of the book to be particularly convincing.
  4. Miller talks about evolution that is actually observable, and he refers to a specific bacteria that became able to eat nylon.  Creationists would probably respond to this with: “That’s adaptation, or microevolution, not macroevolution, which we cannot observe!  It’s the same bacteria, only now it can eat nylon!”  They would have a point: that by itself does not demonstrate macroevolution.  One can appeal to other things, as Miller does, to support macroevolution: the fossil record, the no-longer-missing links, the genetic record, and the phenomena in nature that evolution can account for better than ID can.  Still, the case of the nylon-eating bacteria does demonstrate that species change and mutate, and that these changes and mutations can be conducive to their survival.  That is an essential basis for evolution, both micro and macro.
  5. On page 66, Miller says the following in response to Behe’s claim that blood-clotting shows that there had to be a designer: “A designer, of course, could have created the clotting pathway from scratch, which is exactly what the proponents of intelligent design claim.  But if that were indeed the case, then why do we find the raw materials for clotting exactly where evolution tells us they should be, in the last group of organisms to split off from the vertebrates before blood clotting appeared?”  I, as someone with little aptitude in the natural sciences, did not entirely follow Miller’s scientific discussion, but he looked to me like he was making a strong point here.  Here are these creatures: they have the parts that are necessary for blood to clot, but their blood does not clot.  Why would a designer design them this way?  If they are in that evolutionary spot that precedes blood-clotting but is moving in that direction, however, this phenomenon would make sense.
  6. Miller disagrees with biologist Stephen Jay Gould on how random evolution is.  Or that was my impression of the debate.  Gould believed that things could have turned out differently, from an evolutionary perspective.  Miller, however, believes that evolution works under certain constraints—-location, occurrences, evolutionary history, natural selection, etc.—-and thus it is not very random.  (I am surprised that Gould disagreed with this, assuming that he did.)  Miller seems to be arguing that things turned out as they did for a reason: that we, human beings, are not mere accidents.  Miller elsewhere in the book speaks in support of fine-tuning and the anthropic principle.  He asks why God would wait millions of years to create the earth and life, and Miller’s response is that the universe as it is—-with its age, its vastness, and its organization—-is how it needs to be for life to exist on earth.  Miller also notes that nature produces a lot of positive mutations, which are essential for evolution to be successful, and Miller appears to find this worthy of wonder.  What is Miller’s point in saying all this?  Is this Miller’s way of defending the existence of God—-to say that some benevolent force made the universe and nature conducive to life, when things could have turned out otherwise?  Part of Miller’s point is that God does not need to be continually interfering in the course of nature for things to turn out all right, for nature is doing a fine job on its own, thank you very much; still, does Miller believe that God started the process, while having in mind (or intending) the way things turned out, on some level?  There is another consideration to note: Miller says near the end that evolution should make human being humble.  We are not above nature, but we are related to it, and we are a part of it, and we can easily be replaced by another species in the future.  Does that contradict, in some way, Miller’s view (if I understand it correctly) that humans are somehow a part of God’s plan, or intention?
  7. On page 234, Miller quotes a profound point that Phillip Johnson makes: “It seems to me that the peacock and peahen are just the kind of creatures a whimsical Creator might favor, but that an ‘uncaring mechanical process’ like natural selection would never permit to develop” (Darwin on Trial, 1995, pages 30-31).  This inspires within me a question: When I see something beautiful in nature, should I see that as a special creation from God, or could it have come about naturally?  I thought about this not long ago when I visited some waterfalls.  Those waterfalls are very beautiful.  Yet, I seriously doubt that even young-earth creationists would say that God made them through special creation, for they would probably acknowledge that they came about through geological developments after the Flood.  Can randomness, or natural causes, result in beauty?  Or maybe God guides the process, and I can still give God glory when I see the waterfalls!
  8. Miller seems to present the natural sciences as a “Just the facts, maam” sort of enterprise.  They are free from political or ideological bias, as far as Miller is concerned.  Miller believes that ID advocates, and also liberal relativists, are undermining this important principle.  While I can see Miller’s point, I think that he should have mentioned, at least in passing, the issue of climate change.  This is a scientific issue on which people on both sides (if there are two sides) claim that there is bias: one side accuses the other side of being beholden to the oil companies, and the other side claims that defenders of climate change being a human-caused reality are distorting the evidence to get more grants, or to pursue some liberal agenda.
  9. I identified with something that Miller said on page 219, about the times when he explains evolution to audiences, some of which disagree with him: “The crowds did not always like what I had to say, but they were transfixed by the subject.  Americans love science, and they are fascinated even by a science that more of them reject than accept.”  I found this to be true in my own life.  When I was an undergraduate in college, I did not believe in evolution (at least in those first two years), but I was fascinated by the evidence for it.  I read the Gish-Saladin debate, and what Saladin had to say intrigued me.  I also read the lengthy article about evolution in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I am still interested in evolution—-the evidence for it, and how to make sense of it in light of religion—-even though I have much more to read about it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Write-Up: Until We Reach Home, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  Until We Reach Home.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2008.  See here to buy the book.

As I was reading this book, I thought to myself more than once, “This book is Christy-Award worthy.”  Lynn Austin has written a lot of books.  Many of them have received Christy Awards (wikipedia says that Lynn Austin “holds the record for most Christy Awards won: eight”), and many of them have not.  Overall, the ones that won Christy Awards left a stronger impression on me than the ones that did not.  The exception to this would be All Things New, her novel about Reconstruction in the post-Civil War American South (see my book write-up here).  That book left a strong impression on me, even though it did not win a Christy Award.

It turns out that Until We Reach Home did win a Christy Award!

Until We Reach Home is set in the nineteenth century, and it is about three Swedish girls, Elin, Kirsten, and Sofia.  Their mother died years before, and their grieving father then committed suicide, which brought shame to the three girls in their town in Sweden.  The three girls were then raised by their Uncle Sven, who sexually abused Elin.  Elin wants to protect her two sisters, so she arranges to travel with them to Chicago.

Overall, while the three sisters interact with and care for each other, they strike me as rather independent.  Kirsten, for example, has her own life.  In Sweden, she was close to her brother Nils and his friend Tor, and she hung out with them a lot.  She had a romantic relationship with Tor.  Throughout the book, it is almost as if the three sisters share space and interact with each other, and even offer opinions about each other, yet they have their own secrets, problems, experiences, personalities, and destinies.

The book was slow for about a hundred pages, but it picked up when we (the readers) learned that Kirsten is pregnant with Tor’s baby.  The Ellis Island officials do not allow single pregnant women to become U.S. citizens, for they fear that the women will become dependent on the state, so Kirsten contrives a story to get into the country, and she hides her pregnancy from her sisters.  In the course of the book, the three sisters experience the less-than-glowing hospitality of their aunt, work for a rich cranky old woman who is not so tough underneath, and find their unique destinies.

What I enjoyed about the book was the suspense that I felt in wondering how everything would turn out.  What would happen, for example, once the sisters learned each other’s secrets?  Near the end of the book, the three sisters are wondering where they will live and work, and each sister finds a different solution: Elin’s plan is for the three sisters to travel to Wisconsin, where Elin would marry a man with whom she has corresponded; Kristen’s plan is to marry a local newspaperman, and her sisters would live at his place; and Sofia’s plan is to get a job singing at the local theater, and the sisters would live together in an actor’s apartment.  The three sisters clash on their plans, but then they go their separate ways.  And yet, that is not the end, for a new development places a potential roadblock in Elin’s plan, and Kirsten has to iron out difficulties and challenges in her marriage.  The book had strong protagonists, and I was happy for them when they succeeded and found happiness.

Something else that I liked about the book was the cat, Tomte.  He’s a big cat, and his tail twitches, like Dante, one of our kitties.  I was wondering what happened to Tomte after his owner, the cranky rich woman, dies, since her daughter-in-law did not like cats.  I was as excited to see him as the three sisters in the book!
There are two things that I would like to note.  First of all, Elin feels guilty because she was abused by her Uncle Sven.  She had turned to him for comfort after her parents died, and he took advantage of her.  Elin is told that this was not her fault, and yet she turns to God for forgiveness.  I realize that a significant aspect of Lynn Austin’s fiction is God’s forgiveness, for that is what the Gospel is about, but, in the case of Uncle Sven’s abuse, Elin had done nothing that required forgiveness, for she was the victim.  Lynn Austin would agree with that, I am sure—-I seriously doubt that she is for blaming the victim—-but the part about Elin receiving forgiveness was an odd detail in the story.  That is not to say that Elin did not have her own character flaws or areas in which she needed to grow: she could be rather controlling and overbearing in her concern for her sisters, she believed that she knew best, she thought that the whole world rested on her shoulders, and she had a tendency to think the worst of people she did not know.  She did need personal healing, on some level.

Second, there is Sofia’s presentation of the Gospel to the cranky old woman, who was sharing with Sofia some of the skeletons in her own closet.  Sofia says on page 314:

“…I’ve been reading my mama’s Bible and…it says that we’ve all done bad things.  But if we admit that we’ve done wrong and tell Jesus we’re sorry for it and begin to follow His word, then his death will count in our place.  He’ll take all of our sins away so that when we get to heaven, the pearly gates will swing wide open to let us in.”

What stood out to me was how this Gospel presentation was depicting the relationship between salvation and good works.  We start to obey Jesus’ word, THEN his death counts in our place?  I thought that his death counts in our place, THEN we start to obey his word.  Well, there are biblical passages about repentance being a prerequisite for the remission of sins (I think of Acts 2:38), and one can perhaps define repentance as beginning to obey Jesus’ word, or at least wanting to do so.  I have personal issues with conflating obedience to Jesus’ word with salvation because, quite frankly, I fall short of Jesus’ commands.  But I do agree that seeking God’s forgiveness does (or at least should) entail some change of attitude towards sin, a desire to go in another direction.

I enjoyed this book, and I have repeatedly found Lynn Austin’s books to be compelling and moving.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Ramblings on the Last Sunday School Class on the Social Principles

My church finished its Sunday School class on the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles a few Sundays ago.  Here are three items:
  1.  The pastor was commenting on welfare.  She was responding to people who say that the American welfare system discourages marriage, or encourages single poor women to have a lot of kids so they could get more money from the government.  Essentially, she said that these sorts of situations would exist, even if welfare were abolished.
I said that I agree with her, on some level, but that I still believe that the system should encourage marriage; at the same time, I said that I did not want women to be pushed into abusive relationships.  As I reflected more after the class, I thought that perhaps I was conveying the wrong idea: I do not particularly want for the American welfare system to encourage marriage, but I don’t think that it should discourage it.  What would I propose, then?  Perhaps that people can still keep some of their benefits even after they marry.  I don’t know.  Of course, there are married people who are on welfare, so it’s not as if marriage by itself means no benefits.  I may be writing myself into a pit, and looking ignorant in the process, so onto the next item.

2.  We talked about the death penalty.  The Social Principles are unequivocally against it because they think that it takes away a person’s opportunity to be redeemed.  Maybe.  Some, however, have argued the opposite.  In college, I had to read Camus’ Reflections on the Guillotine, and Camus said that one reason certain religious people supported the death penalty was that impending execution put a lot of criminals into a religious state of mind.

I consider myself a fairly progressive person.  Still, I was disappointed when I watched the news and saw that Connecticut abolished the death penalty, and thus these two killers would not be executed.  How would I feel if someone killed my loved ones?  I doubt that executing the killers would make me feel thoroughly better, since that would not bring my loved ones back, but at least I would feel satisfaction that justice had been done.

There is a tension in my mind between justice and mercy.  There does need to be justice.  At the same time, we all do wrong things, and even those who do wrong are human beings of value.  Should they not be given an opportunity to be redeemed?  I don’t know.  A lot of evangelical Christians talk as if Jesus dying on the cross for people’s sins resolves the tension between justice and mercy.  That puzzles me.  A third party dying in someone’s place resolves the tension between justice and mercy?  In my mind, the tension remains.  There is a gulf that forms when justice is not done.  But aren’t Christians supposed to believe in redemption?

There are people who are able to forgive those who killed their friends or loved ones.  Their Christianity, or whatever worldview they hold, leads them to respect the humanity of the killer, to realize that the killer is a human being with experiences, and to embrace the possibility of redemption.  I admire them, but I am not on that high spiritual place.  If someone killed my loved ones, I would feel as if I were loving my loved ones less were I to forgive their killer.

3.  We talked about whether Hillary Clinton’s association with the United Methodist Church would hurt her, or the United Methodist Church, were she to speak to its annual conference while still being a candidate for President.  Someone said that this may hurt Hillary because it would look like she was transgressing the separation of church and state.  Someone else said that it may look bad for her because, as progressive as the Social Principles are, they are opposed to same-sex marriage.

I think that it would hurt the United Methodists more.  I doubt that it would hurt Hillary because most American politicians (according to my understanding) have a denominational affiliation, and that does not trouble most Americans.  On the UMC’s stance on same-sex marriage, Hillary can just say that she disagrees with her church on that.  Plus, it’s not as if people lump the UMC into the same boat as right-wing fundamentalists, for there are UMC pastors who support or even perform same-sex marriages.  Hillary can just say that her church is evolving.

Hillary speaking to the UMC conference while being a candidate for President would hurt the UMC, however, because she is a polarizing political figure, plus it would look as if the UMC is taking sides in a presidential race.  That would offend the people in the UMC who are Republicans.

I doubt, though, that Hillary will speak to the UMC conference while being a presidential candidate.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ramblings on My Pastor's Last Day at Our Church

Today was our pastor’s last day at our church.  I have been attending a United Methodist Church for the last three months.  She has been pastoring this church for the last six years!  Near the end of the service, we watched a video that interviewed various church members, who answered trivia questions about the pastor: What is her favorite sports team?  What is her favorite sweet?  Who is the love of her life?  Which song would she like to be played at her funeral?  What is her favorite saying (her saying, that is)?  They also addressed the question of how she influenced them spiritually.

Before we watched the video, someone got up and told a story about her trying to get used to the ways and sayings of the church when she first came.

Some things were new to me.  Some things I knew, or at least could envision.  I knew that the pastor loves chocolate chip cookies, and that she is a huge fan of Richard Rohr.  The story that the one person told was about how she had to get used to how the church was during the summer time.  At the church where she was previously, summer services were well-attended.  At our church, however, the pews are not packed during the summer, and people take some “me time.”  I have noticed that myself, on some level: I would say that the church is fairly well-attended during the summer (maybe that’s because I’m used to even smaller churches!), but people do feel free to take Sundays off, at times.  And these are pillars of the church, who have attended for decades!  I can meet someone, and not see that person for weeks!  But the person still comes back, because that is home.

I felt that I got to know the pastor, on some level.  I read her blog.  I attended Sunday School for a little over a month (and I still want to write a post about last week’s class, which was the last one for that unit!).  I’ve heard some of her sermons.  And she treated me to lunch.

How has she influenced me spiritually?  Well, I do now subscribe to Richard Rohr’s daily e-mail.  That has been an interesting experience.  I would say that, on some level, I was prepared for this experience even before I attended this United Methodist Church.  When I was living in upstate New York, which was before I moved to Washington, I read some books about Ignatian spirituality, mysticism, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton, so it was not as if I was entering into territory that was unfamiliar to me when I started reading Richard Rohr.  There are parts of this thought-system that resonate with me: using one’s weaknesses as an opportunity to grow closer to God, for example.  Contemplation makes sense to me, but I do not practice it.

There are aspects of Rohr’s thought that strike me as panentheistic, or that seem to regard humans as good, or as having good within them (and I hope that I am characterizing Rohr’s thought correctly).  I am not sure if this resonates with me entirely: I would like to believe that God is in me, that the world somehow manifests Christ or is held together in him, that God is working on me even when I do not feel it, and that there is good within me that I can bring forth or draw on.  On some level, maybe I do believe those things.  But there is just so much that is bad about the world, and about me.  Original sin is a concept that resonates with me, not so much because I am settled in believing that there was a historical Adam and Eve who screwed everything up for themselves and the rest of us, but rather because I notice a lot of crap within myself.  I see myself as a sinner saved by grace; maybe Rohr does, too.  In any case, I will still read Rohr.  Even if there are some things that he says that seem strange or foreign to me, I at least do learn something from his e-mails about the history of Christian thought.

The pastor also told me about the show Orphan Black, which she may like because of her background in genetics.  My Mom, step-Dad, and I have been enjoying that show.  I’m looking forward to season 3 coming out on DVD!

The pastor’s sermon this morning was about how Paul believed that God’s grace was made manifest in the love and spiritual fruit of his congregations.  That, she said, confirmed to Paul the truth of the Gospel.  Maybe so, on some level.  Paul already had enough that confirmed to him the truth of the Gospel—-his own experience of the resurrected Jesus.  Yet, I do believe that Paul liked to see the Gospel working in people’s lives, that this reinforced to him its truth.  The thing is, he did not always see that, as we can observe in the case of I Corinthians, for the Corinthian church had strife, class divisions, and even sexual immorality.  If the Gospel works, why was God not transforming the Corinthians?  Maybe they needed to hear about the implications of the Gospel.  Maybe Paul’s expectation was that, because they were saved and had God’s Holy Spirit, they would respond favorably and repentantly to what Paul had to say.

I’ll stop here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

(Rambling) Book Write-Up: The Reason Driven Life, by Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price.  The Reason Driven Life: What Am I Here On Earth For?  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.  See here to buy the book.

Robert M. Price is often characterized as an atheist biblical scholar.  The Reason Driven Life is his response to evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s popular bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.  Atheist comedian Julia Sweeney wrote the Foreword to The Reason Driven Life.  Here are some reactions to Price’s book.
  1.  Have I stopped believing in God after reading The Reason Driven Life?  Well, no.  Some of my reasons are emotional.  I cannot give up that security blanket!  It helps me emotionally to believe that I can go to God with my problems, that I am not alone.  Some of my reasons are more anecdotal: I have heard stories about the supernatural in people’s lives, so I do not believe that this life is all there is.  Price says in The Reason Driven Life that, when he dialogues with born-again Christians (and Price offers suggestions about when, how, and if one should do that), he tries to show them that they can have what their faith offers apart from their faith.  Indeed, in certain areas, I agree that they can.  They can have moral values.  They can enjoy beauty that is above and beyond themselves, as Price does when he goes to church or sees great art.  They can appreciate and derive wisdom from the Bible and other religions, as Price does, though I question whether they can legitimately accept the parts that deal with the supernatural or that make metaphysical claims.  If they do, and here I think of Price’s openness in the book to certain Stoic and Hindu claims (i.e., a divinity underlying the cosmos), I would be curious about their basis for doing so, or the extent to which they are doing so: perhaps they adopt aspects of the supernatural or metaphysical claims but not their entirety, or they think that certain supernatural or metaphysical claims are profound even if they are not literally true.  But back to the question of whether I can have what my faith offers without my faith.  My answer would be “not entirely.”  Without my faith, I would not have a higher power I can go to when I am vulnerable or need strength.
  2. Some may say that I lean on my faith so that I can avoid taking responsibility for my own life and success.  If I am praying to God, am I leaving things to him rather than doing what I need to do to meet my wants and needs?  Well, I am not going to say that I am perfect in that department.  But I do believe in taking personal action, not just praying.  Price talks about studying successful people and seeing if one can learn from their suggestions.  I am open to that.  I deal with social anxiety, and I have been thinking that perhaps it would be helpful to me—-and those who read me—-to read a book or two about that subject, so that I can learn how to see and deal with social situations, rather than freezing up and walking away feeling that I am an inept loser.  As Price says about other topics, there is a lot of wisdom and experience out there, and I would be remiss to close my ears to that!  Still, I do have an emotional need for God to be with me through all of this.  Price talks about the importance of attitude—-how a negative attitude can close one’s eyes to possible opportunities, or even give off bad vibes to others that can inhibit a person’s success.  He may be correct about this.  The hard part for me is getting rid of my negative attitude, especially with my memories of failure, or feelings that I am not going anywhere.  I think that my faith can help me here—-I have found Joel Osteen’s teachings to be helpful to me in that they encourage me to hope, even if I do not embrace the entirety of Joel’s prosperity message.  I remember reading a blog post that recommended a book that was about having a positive, yet realistic (not Polyannish), attitude, and I wish that I could remember the title of that book.  Let me say this: I do believe that I should act, but I do not think that it is healthy for me to assume that all of my success depends on me, or that I bear the weight of the world.  If I were to believe that, I would be more anxious or obsessive-compulsive than I already am.  There is a place, in my opinion, for me to let go and to let God.
  3. A question that I had while reading Price was this: Can I have some of the things that Price is talking about, while still keeping my faith?  If so, on what basis, and do I even need a basis?  I agree with Price on a lot of things.  Back when I was a right-wing fundamentalist, I did not feel entirely authentic, but rather as if I was sticking to somebody else’s script for me.  This was especially the case when it came to me witnessing to others (and Price, in my opinion, does well to question whether the New Testament even requires every single believer to be an evangelist).  I had a genuine faith, but I also felt like fundamentalism was forcing me into a mold.  At this time in my life, though, my faith is my faith: it is something that I have chosen, it does relate to who I am, and it is not simply some external standard that I have appropriated to myself (though, in my opinion, external standards can be a good thing—-even Price has ideas about what makes for a good life, or a good person).  I, too, have issues with biblical inerracy: it seems to me to fall apart easily, plus, like Price, I do not believe that the entire Bible conforms to evangelical theology.  I would not go so far as to say that many evangelicals are ventriloguists when it comes to the Bible, as Price does, for I do believe that evangelicals learn from the Bible, as opposed to just projecting their beliefs onto it (and, yes, I believe that they do the latter, too).  The doctrine of hell does disturb me.  I consider the days on which I do not think much about hell to be psychologically healthy days.  I am also open to learning new things.  I believe that I can be a Christian and open at the same time, for Christianity is a rich and diverse belief system, and who am I to say that I cannot learn from other religions, as well?  Plus, God may show me new things as I grow, based on where I will be.  I suppose that I try to center my faith on God being a God of love, and I base that, in part, on God giving us ethical commands: if God commands us to love, then one can reasonably conclude that God loves.  On issues such as hell, inerrancy, etc., I try to stay open.  Maybe concepts such as progressive revelation, or liberal models of divine revelation, or hell being a place of separation from God, or the possibility of universalism, or Rahner’s concept of the anonymous Christian can help me to have a version of Christianity that makes sense to me and does not make me into a jerk.  Fundamentalists may accuse me of picking and choosing, and perhaps they have a point.  My overall point here is that I do believe that one can be authentic, learning, changing, and growing, while still having some Christian faith.
  4. Price critiques Warren for focusing on eternity.  Warren says that we should not sweat the small stuff because we (or we Christians) will live forever in bliss.  Price, by contrast, says that we should not sweat the small stuff because life is short, and this is the only life we have.  Price actually appeals to the Bible in making this point: Psalm 90:12 talks about the importance of numbering one’s days.  There is a sense in which what Price says appeals to me, and a sense in which it does not.  While I was reading Price, I thought to myself that getting rid of bitterness is easier for me if I do so because life is short and I do not want to wrestle with bitterness, than it is if I am obeying the command of some God who will condemn me for being bitter.  Why can I not just learn from my mistakes and move on, rather than thinking that God still holds my mistakes against me because I have a hard time forgiving others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26)?  A universe without God can be appealing!  On the other hand, I have issues with the idea of looking to this world as my sole home.  Many people cannot make the most out of this life, for there are many unpleasing, unsatisfying things.  People with less privilege than I have would see that as a gross understatement.  There have been seasons in my life in which the hope of heaven has been the main thing keeping me going, with a positive attitude, that is.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon on heaven as a place where people love each other ministered to me in a time when I was lonely and alienated.  Life is better for me now, but I still hope that this life is not all there is.
  5. Price does make some interesting points about the Bible in this book.  He talks about I Corinthians and how an author there is trying to make prophecy and tongues into something that edifies the church with a clear message, rather than an ecstatic way to praise God with the angels!  Price likens this author to a Presbyterian trying to suppress Pentecostal expression!  At the same time, Price also maintains that I Corinthians 2:14ff., which says that the spiritual man knows the things of God, is about glossalalia, which would make it a pro-glossalia passage.  This makes me curious about Price’s views on the authorship of I Corinthians, and he has written a book about the Pauline epistles, so perhaps I should consult that, sometime in the future.
Price covers a lot more in this book: his experiences with his group, Heretics Anonymous; how his wife Carol is better in certain social situations than he is (and I thought I was the only one who brought a book to a social gathering!); the development of the concept of Satan within ancient Judaism; and how it is better to see life as random rather than to think that God causes everything (good and bad).  I myself wrestle with the question of whether God protects me and my loved ones (a la Psalm 91), and how one can account for the times when that does not seem to be the case.  I cannot say that my beliefs on this are consistent; I guess that I lean towards the idea that I can turn to God in times of peril, and that those times can be opportunities for me to grow and build character (and Price is actually open to the latter).

In any case, there is a lot more territory that I can cover in this book write-up.

I do not feel a great desire to read Rick Warren’s book after reading Price’s response to it, but Warren did make one point that I liked.  In Acts 28, after a shipwreck, Paul is gathering firewood to build a fire for the shipwrecked.  Warren appealed to this story as an example of Paul having a servant attitude, but Price believed that Warren was going too far, and that this detail was in the story simply to set the stage for Paul to be bitten by a serpent, without getting sick or dying afterwards.  I kind of like Warren’s observation and homiletical application of the text, though: Paul was thinking of others and their comfort, even though he himself was tired, and he was willing to pitch in and help.

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